By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s Justice Department is terminating 29 contracts signed to build desperately needed prisons that never left the drawing board. It means Depen, Brazil’s National Penitentiary Department, will have to chase after the R$160 million that has already been paid into states’ accounts for the new building works, while more and more reports surface of inmates fleeing severely overcrowded prisons.

Depen director general Augusto Rossini in 2009, Brazil News.
Depen Director General Augusto Rossini said he wanted maximum prison space from money spent on building projects, photo by Elza Fiúza/ABr.

Depen Director General Augusto Rossini said the cancellations cover contracts signed between 2005 and 2010, whose formal processes had not yet been completed or where bidding had not been concluded.

“It’s not an easy decision to take. However, it’s important for the game to be “zeroed” with the states. That game is very clear – a real increase in the maximum amount of prisoner space available,” Rossini said.

The money which had been destined for the now rescinded contracts must go back to the Treasury, and the Ministry of Justice has announced that it could still scrap another nine agreements in its review of building contracts.

Rossini also announced the department’s decision to review all construction projects for facilities specializing in care for young adults – a program which is reportedly not justifying its investments.

In recent weeks reports in the Brazilian media have revealed story after story of desperate overcrowding in the prison system, with a number of attempts made by prisoners to flee inhumane living conditions – some successful.

Just last weekend 135 prisoners escaped from detention centers across the state of Bahia, where one of the facilities, in Barreiras, had 172 prisoners in a complex built to hold just 28.

Last week, prisoners in a detention facility in Goiânia, the capital of Goiás state, were caught trying to dig a tunnel underneath a toilet in an attempt to to escape from the cell they were being kept in, which had been crammed to bursting point: nine inmates squeezed into a cell meant to house just two.

Earlier this month prisoners at the same facility staged a hunger strike to draw attention to the inhumane conditions they were – and apparently still are – being forced to live in.

Other TV reports showed prison cells with ten times the number of inmates they were designed to hold. Pictures showed prisoners straining through the bars at the cameras, trying desperately to draw attention to their plight.

Severe overcrowding at a prison in Goiânia, image recreation.
Overcrowding at a prison in Goiânia, where some cells contained ten times more detainees than allowed, led to a number of break-outs, image recreation.

The statistics available leave little doubt as to why this is happening:

Figures from Depen for Brazil’s prison population in 2010 show some 445,705 in detention; but with the system only having space for 281,520 prisoners (263,847 for men and 17,673 for women), it means there was a shortage of well over 164,000 spaces.

Rio de Janeiro state had a 2010 prison population totaling 25,514 prisoners squeezed into cells designed for 24,019 – meaning a deficit of nearly 1,500 spaces.

The worse overcrowding is reported in “all facilities” in the Brazilian capital, Brasília.

The problem of prison overcrowding in Brazil is certainly nothing new, and many will be questioning what happened to the raft of alternatives strategies for dealing with those in detention to reduce overcrowding in the prison system.

The high number of serious criminals arrested during the ongoing pacification of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, including the recent operations in Rocinha, surely means that the problem of overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons, such as Rio’s maximum security Bangu complexes, will remain in crisis for the near future.


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