A 'Problem From Hell’: Why Brazil's Deadly Prison Riots Keep Happening

Prisons like Altamira, where 57 inmates just died, are overcrowded, understaffed and controlled by gangs. But there’s little appetite for reform.

A violent clash between rival drug gangs on Monday left at least 57 inmates dead at a prison in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, according to the latest figures from state authorities.

At least 16 of the murdered prisoners were decapitated with makeshift knives, authorities and news reports said. Others were asphyxiated amid the fighting when a fire sent thick black smoke billowing through the prison. The riot erupted when members of a gang started that fire in a part of the prison where a rival faction had gathered, authorities said. Two guards were temporarily held hostage. Gruesome videos from inside the prison spread across social media.

It was, by some accounts, the deadliest prison massacre to hit Brazil since 1992, when 111 inmates were killed during a riot at a prison facility in São Paulo. In that instance, law enforcement officers responding to the riot were responsible for more than two-thirds of the deaths. On Monday, reports suggested that inmates had carried out the majority, and possibly all, of the killings at the regional facility in Altamira, a growing city in the country’s interior. All of the reported victims were prisoners.

Such riots occur with alarming frequency in South America’s largest nation. At the beginning of 2017, more than 100 inmates died in separate prison riots, and in May of this year, 55 prisoners died across two days of rioting in the Amazonian city of Manaus. Seven inmates were murdered during a riot at the Altamira facility last September; 22 more were killed at another facility in Pará state in April.

The riots are, in many ways, Brazil’s version of the United States’ school shootings: tragically common events with major death tolls, after which initial shock quickly fades into grim acceptance, and no reforms are enacted.

“Prison violence is the predictable result of a long-standing policy of mass incarceration,” said Robert Muggah, the co-founder of the Igarape Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based public security think tank. “Unfortunately, most Brazilians will shrug off this latest outbreak of violence, numb as they are to the ritual of bloodletting in the country’s prisons.”

Family members of prisoners wait outside the Altamira correctional facility after 57 inmates were killed during a riot on Monday.
Family members of prisoners wait outside the Altamira correctional facility after 57 inmates were killed during a riot on Monday.
Associated Press

Security experts suggest that the root causes of these riots ― and the necessary changes ― are painfully obvious. Brazil’s prisons, they say, are overcrowded and inhumane. The combination of an overly punitive criminal justice system, an ill-fated war on drugs, a lack of resources and no clear commitment to reform has left the facilities largely under the control of organized criminal factions like those that went to war on Monday, rather than state authorities.

Many expect that the Altamira riot will similarly lead to little change, especially in a nation that elected right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro last year in part because he promised an even more iron-fisted approach to criminal justice than the country’s remarkably deadly law enforcement bodies and prison systems were already wielding.

Politicians in the hardline public security caucus that backed Bolsonaro’s election, and that now serves as a vital part of his governing coalition, remained proudly unconcerned about the bloodshed on Monday.

“Fuck them,” Gilson Cardoso Fahur, a member of the National Congress and a former military police officer, said of the dead prisoners. “I’m worried about the guards.”

‘I’d Rather Die’ Than Go To Prison In Brazil

Brazilian prisons are notoriously deadly. In 2012, then-Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo decried the nation’s “medieval” prisons and said he’d rather die than spend a single day as a prisoner in one. Hundreds of inmates nationwide die inside the facilities each year, and gang violence isn’t the only reason. The public defender’s office for Rio state said many of the nearly 270 prisoners who died in 2017 in just that state perished from treatable illnesses, Human Rights Watch reported.

There are more than 800,000 people incarcerated in Brazil, more than in every other nation except the United States and China, and nearly double the official capacity of the country’s prisons.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch researcher César Muñoz, an expert on the Brazilian prison system, described entering “a humid, unsanitary cell with six cement bunks for 60 men who did not even have enough floor space to lie down.” In some states, prison populations range from three to five times higher than capacity.

The members of rival drug gangs who fill many of the prisons, meanwhile, operate relatively freely from inside, thanks to easy access to cellphones and other methods of communication. They have turned their battles for control of trafficking routes across the country into gruesome fights for supremacy within prison facilities, and as the largest gangs have expanded northward from their bases in the south, those turf wars behind bars have intensified ― the May riot in Manaus and Monday’s in Altamira involved gangs traditionally based in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.

“The protection nowadays in many Brazilian prisons is given by the criminal gangs. You either join for protection or you are left on your own.”

- Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil director for Human Rights Watch

Poor conditions, many inmates, and a lack of alternative education or job training resources make prisons fertile recruiting grounds for the gangs. Add underpaid, understaffed, overwhelmed ― and at times, corrupt ― prison authorities to that mix, and outbreaks of violence are inevitable.

“The fact that there is overcrowding and understaffing makes it impossible for any prison to maintain control,” said Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil director for Human Rights Watch. “So many of Brazil’s prisons are controlled by the gangs, not the state.”

The Altamira prison was no different. The city has boomed in recent years thanks to the construction of a new dam on the nearby Xingu River. But the population growth and development has also marginalized and impoverished many residents and led to spikes in the drug trade ― and thus the number of local residents, most of them young men, arrested and incarcerated.

The facility where Monday’s riot occurred held more than 300 prisoners ― roughly double its capacity ― according to reports. And it offered few, if any, alternative resources for prisoners.

“In this specific prison, from what the National Justice Council says, there was no cellphone blocker, there was no nursery, there was no library, there was no classroom, there was no work facility,” Canineu said. “There was zero, zero, zero opportunity for doing anything else other than [fighting].”

“The detainees are left there with no real structure, and they have to search for protection somewhere,” she said. “The protection nowadays in many Brazilian prisons is given by the criminal gangs. You either join for protection or you are left on your own. It’s the perfect ground for criminal recruitment. The state is helping the gangs recruit.”

An Overreliance On Incarceration

Across the country, the common response from political leaders to prison overcrowding and violence is to build more facilities, a policy approach that Bolsonaro said he favored when running for president.

It’s a solution that hasn’t worked so far. Brazil has been constructing prisons continually over the last decade, yet the number of new inmates has increased at nearly double the rate of new prison beds, according to statistics from the Ministry of Justice.

“This problem from hell will not be solved by throwing more prisons at the problem,” Muggah said in a text message on Monday. “The only way the government can turn the situation around in the short-term is by reducing the stock and flow of inmates.”

Criminal justice experts and human rights observers argue that the Brazilian justice system needs to become less punitive and more efficient, in part by reducing the number of people held in pretrial detention. In 2015, nearly 40% of the country’s prisoners were still awaiting trial, and most of them were placed among the general populations of already convicted criminals.

The nation’s prosecutors and judges tend to favor prison sentences over rehabilitative programs even for first-time and nonviolent offenders, and a lack of access to public defenders makes prison sentences even more likely. Meanwhile, Brazil’s spending on prisons and policing often dwarfs its investments in community development, education and other preventative strategies, especially in poorer communities, according to Instituto Sou da Paz, a São Paulo-based think tank that has issued reform recommendations. The result: The nationwide recidivism rate is roughly 70%.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on an iron-fisted public security platform, favors policies that may exacerbate Brazil's criminal justice problems.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on an iron-fisted public security platform, favors policies that may exacerbate Brazil's criminal justice problems.

“Investing in precautionary arrests of people accused of crimes of low potential offense is a dubious bet for public security,” Ivan Marques, the institute’s director, said this year. “It is essential to redirect resources and efforts to training programs and the integration of young people, as well as confronting extreme poverty and the social reintegration of the criminal population.”

Some such efforts are underway, particularly in the judiciary and the Justice Ministry, where judges and criminal justice oversight panels have attempted to reduce rates of pretrial detainment and increase access to preliminary hearings for the accused.

But progress has been slow, especially in Brazil’s interior states and outside its major state capitals.

A Hardline President Pursues A Failed Approach

Bolsonaro, who assumed office at the start of 2019, favors a harsher approach. The former Army officer, who has spoken fondly of the murderous military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, campaigned on a hardline platform that promised to give the country’s deadly police more leeway to kill alleged drug traffickers on sight. His slogan was “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” and he has pushed other war-like approaches to root out drug gangs.

As for his leftist opponents and human rights organizations, Bolsonaro has often accused them of wanting to “coddle” criminals. He favors constructing more prisons and has outright dismissed human rights concerns inside jails or anywhere else.

“The main thrust of the Bolsonaro administration is to stiffen penalties, transfer gang leaders to higher security prisons and build new facilities,” Muggah said.

That course of action could easily backfire. While sky-high rates of violent crime helped pave the way for a strongman like Bolsonaro, Brazil’s years of overly aggressive public security measures have struggled to make the nation safer. The history of inhumanity in the country’s prisons has fed its gang problems: Brazil’s largest drug syndicate ― the São Paulo-based First Capital Command, or PCC as it’s known in Portuguese ― grew out of a prisoner revolt over conditions in the facility where its founders were housed.

“[Bolsonaro’s] idea is just to forget about them. Close the doors and forget that they exist,” Canineu said. “This is the policy that has been implemented in Brazil for many, many years, and we know it is not working.”

It’s a vicious cycle, with more bloodshed a virtual certainty.

“The reforms that are necessary? I don’t see them happening,” Canineu said. “We can only hope for the best, but there is not a high expectation.”

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