With more than 700,000 prisoners, the ailing prison system has been thrown into turmoil by the ongoing political disorder and the health crisis caused by Covid-19. What is the future for prisons in Brazil, and what are the main challenges at present?
Rafael Godoi is a sociologist and researcher at the Centre for the Study of Citizenship, Conflict and Urban Violence at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. We asked him three questions.
The dominant political ideology in the country shows total disregard for human life, and this disregard is even worse for prisoners.
Prison Insider. What can you say about prisons in Brazil?
Rafael Godoi. The situation in Brazilian prisons is currently characterised by three issues: poor detention conditions, increase in conflicts between prisoners and militarised response from the State.
Brazil has the third-largest world prison population, and it is the only among the top three countries, whose prison population keeps growing. Brazil still imprison many people amidst an endless and continually worsening political and economic crisis. The dominant political ideology in the country shows total disregard for human life, and this disregard is even worse for prisoners. The political and economic crisis have led to a gradual decline in prison living conditions, causing an increase in conflict between organised crime groups, both in and outside of the prison.
The escalating conflict led to a ‘factional war’, resulting to the 2017 massacres in the states of Amazonas, Rio Grande do Norte and Roraima. The conflicts intensified in prisons and caused countless deaths of inmates.
The situation is extremely tense within prisons, and the authorities’ response makes it worse: the State has responded to the conflict with strong militarisation.
In response to the crisis, the federal government decided to intervene and interfere in State owned prisons. A national military penitentiary intervention unit (força tarefa de intervenção penitenciaria, FTIP) was created. When it intervenes in prisons, cases of torture increase. Access to prisons by civil society is further limited, and it becomes very difficult to hold the authorities accountable.
This results to widespread torture, we receive horrific stories from prisons involved, e.g. in the states of Amazonas and Ceará. The term “inhuman and degrading treatment” cannot describe these practices enough.
The intervention unit introduces what they refer to as the ‘protocol’. Under this protocol, if an official or the head of the establishment enters any prison ward, the inmates must sit on the ground, naked, backward with their head down and their hands on their head as long as the official remains in the ward.
The pandemics attained prisons even in this context of growing oppression.
The poor imprisonment conditions can be seen across the country, although it is more or less acute depending on the state.
PI. Are there disparities and particularities between the states of Brazil?
RG. Brazil is made up of 27 federative units (26 states and one federal district), each with their own prison system, with an additional federal prison system.
Some states like São Paulo have about 30% of the country’s prison population, where there are over 250,000 prisoners, against Tocantins with only 4,000 prisoners, the equivalent of two prisons in São Paulo.
In São Paulo, prisons are located in the outskirts, far from the state capital. While in Rio, prisons are located in a large complex within state capital.
Some facilities are managed by the Ministry of Justice and the prison administration, while others are private or under mixed management as part of a private-public partnership (with companies or non-profit organisations). This means that situations and experiences vary widely. Within the prison system, some prisons are officially specialised in the punishment of sentenced inmates, such as the Bagu I prison or the President Bernardi Penitentiary Readaptation Centre. Some other more informal facilities are used for punishing and isolating leaders of criminal factions.
Inmates held under differentiated regimes are mainly incarcerated in federal prisons. They are held in almost total isolation and deprived of most of their basic rights. This treatment is official and practically counters the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
In each of these situations, we observed the implementation of a very specific ‘limitation’ of rights and guarantees, as well as institutional precariousness.
The poor imprisonment conditions can be seen across the country, although it is more or less acute depending on the state. As such, despite the eruption of wars between criminal factions in certain states in particular (such as Amazonas and Rio Grande do Norte), the country’s entire prison system is affected. Indeed, this situation has led to an overhaul of the prison system across all the states, even states not affected by open conflict have had to conform to the change. For example, the distribution of prisoners among states has been reviewed.
The response of the authorities has been characterised by the entrenchment of militarised prison management. The ‘protocol’ implemented during the intervention remains effective even after eradicating FTIP, the local prison administration maintains this set of practices. It has a knock-on effect, even the heads of establishments where no FTIP intervention took place now see these practices held up as ‘best practice’, hence, are led to apply them in their own establishments.
The worsening conflicts have been redefined by the pandemic, as what we are seeing is in fact a reduction in tensions between gangs.
PI. What changes can we expect? What is the political view on the prison system in Brazil today?
RG. When the new right, or the so-called conservative wave, arrived in power (such as Jair Bolsonaro on the national level and governors such as Wilson Witzel in the state of Rio), the political agenda for the prison system encouraged the privatisation of establishments. Steps in this direction had were in several states. However, given the current pandemic and widespread economic crisis, privatisation is no longer a top priority.
The current situation is strongly influenced by the pandemic, its evolution and a policy of deliberate underreporting (of positive cases and deaths) at the national level, and more seriously, at the prison level.
The Brazilian government does not want to know nor verify anything. It is more concerned with controlling information than the pandemic. This leads to a loss of transparency with regard to the prison system and a sharp decline in living conditions in prison.
We can also observe rising tensions and conflicts between inmates and staff.
Prison officers also lack support. They do not have personal protective equipment and are exposed to an enormous viral vulnerability.
In São Paulo, the prison system has been ‘closed’ since March. This means the suspension of visits and delivery of food and hygiene products, the revocation of permission to leave the institution and the confinement of prisoners at semi-liberty. Mutinies broke out in several prisons, such as the one that recently took place in the state of Amazonas.
In the past, mutinies often resulted from conflicts between prisoners, but this is no longer the case. The inmates and their families have made it clear that the current unrest is not due to disputes between prisoners; rather, organized demonstrations held to demand that the authorities pay greater attention to health conditions in prisons. It can therefore be said that the worsening conflicts have been redefined by the pandemic, as what we are seeing is in fact a reduction in tensions between gangs.
On the outside, there is a growing collective mobilisation of the families and loved ones of prisoners. They are demanding a policy of ‘disincarceration’ and respect for human rights. This social movement is very diverse, very strong and essential to put pressure on prison administrations and state courts. Its aim is to encourage the release of at-risk inmates. The mobilisation of families is very important because it ensures that basic hygiene conditions are maintained within prisons. Families send their imprisoned loved ones material that the state does not provide, such as household bleach, soap or even masks; in other words, essential items needed to protect oneself, and remain vital in an infection hotspot.
Interview by Carolina Nascimento Translation by Grégoire Fournier