In 2017 alone, at least 119 people were killed during prison riots in Brazil, while other prisoners have simply disappeared. Henrique Apolinario, a lawyer at Conectas Human Rights, discusses what needs to be done in order to avoid further tragedies and to address the underlying causes of the crisis.
2017 started with terrible news in Brazil. On New Year’s Eve, 56 people were killed during riots at the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in Manaus in the state of Amazonas. Two weeks later, 37 people were killed in the Penitentiary of Monte Cristo, in Roraima. Lastly, after two weeks of riots, at least 26 people were killed in Alcaçuz Penitentiary in Rio Grande do Norte. The official narrative for these terrible episodes is that organised crime gangs were fighting for control of state operations and the lucrative international trade route via the Amazon river; the reality, however, is that the structural failure of the Brazilian prison system relies on the stability of these gangs to maintain any sort of normality.
As Conectas’ representative at the National Committee to Fight and Prevent Torture, I accompanied the National Mechanism to Prevent Torture on a state visit to monitor compliance with recommendations that they made a year ago in the wake of the deaths. Our methodology included a thorough inspection of the Monte Cristo Penitentiary, meetings with local civil society, families of the victims and local authorities, and a public hearing aimed at bringing all stakeholders together.
The Monte Cristo Penitentiary is a formerly agrarian prison, meaning it covers a huge area that mostly comprises an empty, open-air space and single story buildings, only three of which are operational. The administrative building is at the entrance, where the guards spend most of their days. About 70 metres behind this building, there is a massive white wall, around 10 metres high and 300 metres wide, divided by three metal doors at equal distance. This is as far as the prison guards go without a riot police escort. Behind these doors, there are three areas, the size of three football fields each. In the first, only a small building remains, where around 60 inmates with serious health issues live. The middle area has three small buildings, each with 12 cells housing around 20 men (and only eight beds with no mattresses). The last area has the newest building, with seven cell blocks, each one housing around 80 or 90 people.
The Public Defender’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary are mandated by law to conduct inspections, but they absolutely never enter the blocks or approach the cells.
The Brazilian National Mechanism to Prevent Torture, as mandated by the UN’s Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel or Degrading Treatment, is not the only public organ with a full mandate to enter any detention facility at any time, but it is the only one that does. The Public Defender’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary are mandated by law to conduct inspections, but they absolutely never enter the blocks or approach the cells. This happens in Roraima and all over the country, save for the rarest of cases, and this is one of the main causes for the distance between prison life and society.
The deaths were not isolated occurrences. Just two months prior to the January killings, 10 deaths were registered in a similar episode, raising red flags by watchdog organisations. On 23rd of April 2017, 7 inmates simply disappeared from an administrative building after allegedly being beaten for hours. After informing the media that these people had fled a cell through a hole in the wall, the government installed a task force to investigate the events; 10 months later, the results are still inconclusive. Their families have organised a movement to call for effective investigations.
The lack of a state presence inside prison facilities results in a lack of access to justice for these people, as they have little contact with their defenders. In Monte Cristo, several inmates missed their day in court as the prison officials did not know where they were. When they were found, some of them refused to leave, with justified fears of being humiliated on they way to court. In addition, seven of their peers did not return when they left the prison on their way to court last April.
Since the January mass killings, the only real official response has been the policy now implemented in most Brazilian states: placing each alleged criminal group in a facility of their own. The members of the so-called Comando Vermelho (Red Command1) and Familia do Norte (Family of the North2) were placed at the County Jail, which is not at all suited for rehabilitation; it has an official capacity for 150 people, but now houses over 500. This, while diminishing the immediate risk of mass conflicts, also legitimises the control of each facility by one group, further aggravating the problem.
In the State of Roraima, there are 1,300 people in facilities controlled by the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital3), and around 500 in the facility controlled by Comando Vermelho and Família do Norte. When a person is arrested and goes through their first court appearance, the judge asks that person which criminal group he or she belongs to (this has only recently been adopted in Brazil). If a person denies involvement, he can be placed in a neutral facility, of which there are not many. In most cases, the prison administration will make a decision through unclear and unlawful criteria, such as the crime committed or the neighborhood the person lives. This practice, combined with the absolute inability of states to keep up with the booming prison populations, has fueled thousands of first-time offenders in areas controlled by criminal groups. In order to have basic rights within walls, or even to remain alive, these people end up owing favours to organised criminal groups, which must be repaid when released, or by their families. Mass incarceration has become the main source of young members for organised crime.
While the Public Prosecutor’s Office and Judiciary say they are completely invested in punishing torture perpetrators and taking power away from factions, the only true measure, implementing alternatives to incarceration, is faced with staunch reluctancy.
While the Public Prosecutor’s Office and Judiciary say they are completely invested in punishing torture perpetrators and taking power away from factions, the only true measure, implementing alternatives to incarceration, is faced with staunch reluctancy. Amongst the 1,300 inmates in Monte Cristo, most are arrested as first-time drug offenders or for petty crimes; 60 Venezuelans with little knowledge of Portuguese or their legal situation were also placed there. Technological monitoring, created as a tool for keeping first-time non-violent offenders from entering the prison system, was only adopted by the local judiciary for people that were already under house arrest due to health problems, so this had no impact on the prison population. 40 per cent of the prison population in the country has not yet been sentenced, while that number can reach 70 per cent in some states.
Brazil has a modern framework of alternative sentencing. Sentences under four years long can be substituted by community service and a ‘sentence progression’ system allows inmates to be released for work outside walls during the day after serving one sixth of their sentence (two fifths for drug trafficking). Still, these mechanisms are not applied on the ground, despite robust jurisprudence from the Supreme Court on standards for pretrial detention and sentence execution. Local courts are largely not bound by these standards and it comes down to who can have access to the appeal courts in Brasília in due time, usually through a overworked Public Defenders body.
According to official data from June 2016, the prison population in Brazil grew from 620,000 to 720,000 in two years. In states in the north and northeast of the country, which is less developed, this boom has been more substantial. Such is the case in Roraima, with a 45 per cent increase, and Amazonas, with a 55 per cent increase in two years. The same data shows that 40 per cent of inmates have not been through trial. In contrast, only 8 per cent of the prison population in Roraima have access to work and 14 per cent have access to some sort of study, while in Monte Cristo, the latter was suspended throughout all of the past year. Work and study are not only means of rehabilitation, but can also be used to reduce time in jail.
Bulding more prisons has been pushed for by conservative groups as the solution to overcrowding. This has been denounced by human rights groups as absolutely unsustainable, as the inmate population will constantly outpace the State’s building capabilities. Furthermore, it is downright unproductive, as the billions allocated to building more prisons should be used for alternatives to incarceration, which are relatively cheap and result in far better results in terms of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism rates. If Brazil were to completely reduce overcrowding in prisons, it would need to build one prison per day for a year.
While some interim measures must be taken to disarm urgent situations, these episodes will be repeated if structural reforms are not carried out. Conectas has published a report, 10 urgent measures for the prison system, in an attempt to re-guide official measures that have, so far, doubled down on ineffective measures such as building more prisons and employing militarised troops inside walls, which only serve to maintain the historic rise of incarceration rates.
1 Began in State of Rio de Janeiro in 1979.
2 Began in the state of Amazonas in 2007.
3 Began in the state of Sao Paulo in 1993.
Image: Provisional Detention Centre Pinheiros, Brazil © Gustavo da Costa Basso, 2017
PRI’s Global Prison Trends 2017 publication reported that a number of other countries have also seen marked increases in prison violence, commonly due to inadequate prison staffing and overcrowding. Read more.
Independent external monitoring of places of detention is essential to counter torture and abuse. PRI’s Detention Monitoring Tool provides practical guidance to help monitoring bodies conduct effective visits to places of detention.
Read about our work promoting alternatives to imprisonment, including PRI’s Model for Reform, On probation – models of good practice for alternatives to prison.