Prison Overcrowding Continues

By Jaylan Boyle, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The Brazilian government is currently considering a range of options aimed at the slowing rapid growth in the country’s prison population, including the use of electronic surveillance as a means of freeing up space in dangerously overcrowded cells.

A view of a chronically crowded unnamed Brazilian cell, image recreation from documentary Hate Under The Brazilian Sun, directed by Adele Reeves.

According to many observers, the federal government has been slow to acknowledge the role that Brazilian prisons play in exacerbating the country’s crime situation, frequently acting as convenient concentrations of young men recruited by the country’s powerful gangs.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-affiliated prisoners are often forced to choose one gang or another as they enter prison, or one is chosen for them.

Many alternatives are being pursued in an effort to remedy the chronic overcrowding and poor conditions of Brazilian prisons, which in turn helps to fuel riots that occur with worrying regularity, especially in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo state prisons. In 1992, a prison riot at the since-demolished Carandiru penitentiary in Sao Paulo resulted in the death of 111 inmates, as military police stormed the jail trying to re-establish order.

The commanding officer of the police operation, Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães, was sentenced to 620 years in prison as a result of the infamous massacre, a conviction that was subsequently quashed because an inquiry accepted the fact that those responsible were guilty only of following orders. This event is said to have lead to the responsive formation by survivors of the massacre of one of Brazil’s most notorious gangs, the First Capital Command, or PCC.

In Rio, Bangu prison developed a deadly reputation for being under the control of the Commanda Vermelha gang at the turn of the millennium, with the television show Fantastico showing images of prisoners openly selling and taking drugs. Riots there in 2004 left over thirty inmates dead, some brutally beheaded and burned, as the situation looked to be lurching out of control.

According to Airton Michels, director of the National Penitentiaries Department almost one sixth of Brazil’s prison population, which is the fourth highest in the world, could in fact do time outside these terrible prison conditions;

“Brazil already has very progressive legislation in terms of alternative sentences. The other option now is electronic tracking with the use of bracelets and ankle cuffs,” said Michels.

That very progressive legislation has already seen many prisoners take advantage of flexible parole rules whereby leave is allowed once one sixth of a long sentence has passed. Earlier this year convicted murderer Angelo Ferreira da Silva escaped a Rio jail having been allowed out to study, but was later re-captured.

Brazilian prison overcrowding, image recreation from the documentary Hate Under The Brazilian Sun, directed by Adele Reeves.

Between 1985 and 2003, Brazil’s prison population exploded by around 84 percent, as many politicians moved to stamp out crime by introducing “get tough” measures. This zero tolerance attitude enjoys the support of more than seventy percent of the general population, and many aspiring leaders base their entire campaigns on promises to get tougher still.

This has lead to an incarceration rate that is growing by 7.3 percent each year, which in turn means facilities and personnel cannot keep up. It is commonplace for 25 inmates to be stuffed into cells designed for four individuals.

The logistical headaches that this situation engenders often means that administrative errors are common, with many languishing in cells for years awaiting trial, and others serving longer than their proscribed sentences.

According to the Penitentiaries Department, the number of prisoners in Brazil in December 2009 was 473,626, of which 44 percent are behind bars awaiting trial. Every year the number of beds that prisons lack increases by four thousand.