Brazil’s representatives had to explain at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights why the country maintains some of the most violent and inhumane prisons in Latin America, and why the government has let them fall into the hands of criminal organizations.
You’d expect Brazilian authorities to make regaining control of their prisons a top priority after the series of massacres that left more than 100 inmates dead just two months ago. Instead, state negligence, incompetence, or a lack of political will continue to let gangs use prison cells as recruiting grounds.
An October 2016 report by the Federal Prison Department said that the state government’s failure to provide adequate health, education, work, and legal services to inmates was strengthening the very gangs the prison system is supposed to help crush. The consequences for Brazil reach far beyond the prison walls.
In mid-February, we asked permission to visit the Penitenciária Agrícola de Monte Cristo, the largest prison in the northern state of Roraima, where gang members killed 10 inmates in October and another 33 in January.
State authorities candidly shared details about life inside the prison, but refused to let us in, saying they could not ensure our safety. In truth, they can’t ensure anyone’s safety. Only the gangs can do that.
The crumbling Penitenciária Agrícola held 1,511 inmates in February. It was built for 750 but its real capacity could be as low as 300 because successive riots have caused the infrastructure to deteriorate, a judge overseeing the prison told us.
Most of the prisoners spend 24 hours a day in overcrowded, fetid cells, with nothing to do.
Roraima’s statewide prison population has grown by 41 percent in the past 18 months, to 2,300. More than half have not been convicted of a crime, according to state data. Their average wait in prison for trial is more than a year, according to the National Council of Justice.
In January, the judge ordered that the 161 inmates held in a semi-open facility – which allows some of them to go out to work during the day – continue their sentences under house arrest after the prison director said that he was unable to ensure their security or the security of his personnel.
At Penitenciária Agrícola, since the October killings, guards have only entered the prison grounds twice a day, to bring food. They are protected by a squad of heavily armed military police officers. Any inmate who feels sick in between – or is attacked – may well die.
The two public defenders who represent convicted detainees in all of Roraima’s prisons have been unable to meet with their clients in Penitenciária Agrícola since October, one of them told us.
As we have reported elsewhere in Brazil, lack of adequate legal representation means that some cases fall through the cracks, including one man who remained in a Roraima prison for a year after he was awarded parole in 2016.
So who’s in charge? Vicious gangs, who use the prison to recruit members by offering the protection that the state does not.
The Penitenciária Agrícola holds about 500 members of PCC, a prison gang originally from São Paulo, according to prison officials, who ask incoming detainees to declare their gang affiliation so that they can be housed with members of their own gang.
Even those who say they belong to no gang are sent to cells with PCC members, allegedly for lack of space, according to prison officials. There, they are under pressure to join.
The 33 inmates who died in January did not belong to any gang. Members of PCC decapitated all of them as a show of force, prison officials told us.
None of this is exclusive to Roraima. Brazil has more than 622,000 people behind bars – 67 percent over capacity. Holding pretrial detainees with convicted criminals, hideous overcrowding, procedural delays, and gang rule within the cellblocks are common.
A new prison under construction – designed for fewer than 400 inmates – won’t solve the state’s problems. Neither Roraima, nor Brazil, will be able to build enough prisons to end overcrowding if there is no change in current incarceration policies.
Judicial and state authorities should make wider use of alternatives to prison, both for people awaiting trial and those convicted of non-violent offenses, and improve the justice system by ending unjustified delays and increasing the number of public defenders.
Most of all, Brazil should abandon its retrograde “war on drugs” policy, which is filling prisons with people detained with small quantities of drugs. Brazil needs to decriminalize drug use.
The recent prison massacres showed the strength of Brazil’s prison gangs.
Brazil’s federal and state governments need to demonstrate that they are stronger, and smarter, by overhauling judicial and incarceration systems that now serve no one well except the gangs.
The safety of everyone – inside and outside the prison walls – depends on it.
César Muñoz Acebes is Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Brazil.