Why Can't Brazil Prevent Deadly Prison Riots?

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Why Can’t Brazil Prevent Deadly Prison Riots?
Why Can’t Brazil Prevent Deadly Prison Riots?
From Latin America Advisor Newsletter
Published by The Inter-American Dialogue
June 7, 2019


Gene M. Smith, President and Co-Owner of Smith Brandon International, Inc. was one of several contributors to a Q&A in the May 14, 2019 issue of the Latin America Adviser Newsletter published by The Inter-American Dialogue. Each of the contributors was asked to answer the following question:

"Fighting among rival drug gangs at several prisons in Brazil’s Amazonas State left 55 people dead, prison officials said May 27. The spate of killings broke out at Manaus’ Anísio Jobim Penitentiary, the same prison where dozens of inmates were killed in an outbreak of violence in January 2017. Why have authorities been unable to prevent the repeated bloodshed? What reforms are needed in Brazil’s prison system? How will the tough-oncrime policies of President Jair Bolsonaro affect the country’s prisons?"

Gene's answer is reproduced below:

“ ‘I’d rather die than spend time in a Brazilian prison.’ That sums up the attitude of former Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo. He called the conditions at Brazilian prisons ‘medieval,’ noted the lack of rehabilitation opportunities for Brazilian prisoners and lamented their wholesale violation of human rights. But he offered no concrete solutions. Brazilian prisons are a cauldron for continued violence: its approximately 715,000 prisoners are held in 2,625 facilities that are estimated to have the capacity to house about 419,000 prisoners. To add more tinder to the fire, prisoners from rival drug factions, notably the PCC, or First Command of the Capital (based in São Paulo), and the Family of the North (based in Manaus), as well as the Red Command (based in Rio de Janeiro), use headline-worthy violence to keep their gang members in line. Violence among prisoners must be outrageous, such as beheadings or the use of sharpened toothbrushes to stab inmates, to garner attention in a country like Brazil, which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, estimated at more than 56,000 in 2017. Prison reform has not developed a single, strong proponent among Brazilian political parties, politicians, any religious entity or any special interest group willing to take on this massive problem. In a system where about one-third of all prisoners are pre-trial detainees, electronic monitoring may be one alternative to keep the accused out of prison. APAC, a program operating in central Brazil, has established a small, rule based facility with virtually open cell doors, with a recidivism rate that is a fraction of the recidivism rate of the typical Brazilian prison, which is estimated at more than 70 percent. Though widespread, immediate reform seems out of the question, incremental reform is worth considering.”

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