By Amy Skalmusky, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Many of those arrested in the recent operations in Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro are no strangers to the police or prison system. With the continuing operations and arrests across Rio, there are growing concerns about the justice system’s ability to keep criminals off the streets.

Prisoners in Brazil receiving material of personal use, photo by Paola Lage/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Brazilians refer to it as “impunidade”, or protection from punishment, and studies show they consider it the number one factor in the high rate of criminality.

No matter how severe the crime, the most jail time a criminal will be sentenced in Brazil is thirty years, unlike the U.S. or UK, which have no limit on prison sentences.

No life imprisonment means parole or progression to an open system or minimum security facility is granted to all inmates after serving only a part of their sentence. Specifically, just 1/6 (16.6 percent) of the sentence for common crimes, 2/5 (40 percent) for first time and 3/5 (60 percent) for repeat offenders of heinous crimes (such as murder, rape, child molestation, felony assault), is required in prison.

Countries with more aggressive punishment, such as the U.S. and UK, offer parole eligibility after serving 1/3 or 1/2 of the sentence respectively, though in many cases of heinous crimes there is no option for parole.

Also in Brazil, minors serve a maximum of three years and under no circumstances are tried like adults. A prime example is the recent release of one of criminals responsible for shocking death of six-year-old João Hélio in 2007. Since he was a minor at the time, he was released on his 18th birthday.

Ideally, any type of progression to an open system or work-release is preceded by job training, rehabilitation and counseling for introduction back into society. In reality though, it has become a stopgap solution for the severely overcrowded prisons in Brazil, as well as other countries.

Elizeu Felício de Souza, "Zeu", was arrested in the operations in the Complexo do Alemão on Nov. 28, 2010/image recreation.
Elizeu Felício de Souza, "Zeu", was arrested in the operations in the Complexo do Alemão , image recreation.

The fear that criminals will get out of jail and go back to what they were doing before is borne out by the 70 percent recidivism rate. Though countries with harsher penalties like the U.S. also have a high rate (56 percent), authorities in Brazil consider it an indication that the system is not working.

Recent examples seem to support this, such as convicted murderer Elizeu Felício de Souza, or “Zeu” – one of the 133 adults and 21 minors that were arrested recently in the Complexo do Alemão – who had been moved to an open system after serving five years of a 23-year sentence.

Proposals are on the table to increase the amount of time a criminal spends in jail before becoming eligible for parole, eliminate conjugal visits, and record visitor conversations. Also attempts at increasing efficiency with prisons run by private companies, similar to many in the U.S., is underway in eleven locations throughout Brazil.

Earlier this month, Rio’s governor Sérgio Cabral announced plans to build two new jails, which will hopefully help the city keep career gangsters off the streets. But with reportedly more than 420,000 prisoners in Brazil, in 1,050 institutions built to hold a total of 262,000 inmates, there will need to be more comprehensive plans put forward.


  1. I recall watching a movie called ‘Carandiru’ which was directed by Hector Babenco (an Argentine by birth who lived most of his life in Brazil). He also directed the watershed Sao Paulo street child movie called ‘Pixote’. Babenco has shown himself as an excellent director who tackles controversial and painful Brazilian issues and essentially puts the society as a whole under the microscope. ‘Carandiru’ concerned the ill-fated prison in Sao Paulo in the early 1990’s where, subsequent to a riot breaking out in the prison, a special police unit called ‘choque’ if memory serves me correctly, was sent in to bring the riot under control. What in reality transpired, was that of wholesale massacre on the part of the police against the inmates. This earned Brazil international condemnation by Amnesty International as a gross human rights abuser. Something in the movie really really shocked me to the core and that was how the police became an execution squad of the inmates, most of whom had already surrendered themselves to the authorities, and who did not put up a fight. This was misery and sadness at its highest form. Following on from this theme, and in the light of the issue of recidivism by convicts once released back into society, and overcrowding in prisons, how on earth can Brazil expect its convicts to behave any differently on their exit from incarceration? By this I mean: when society declares war on its own people who are the lowest on the social class food chain, then how can society expect any other result from such a convict. You can’t treat a person like an animal and expect him to behave like a normal member of society. This is really basic stuff. Add to this, the issue of enormous overcrowding and the lack of basic facilites and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Much of the problem in Brazil, and this goes to the highest level in society, is that of impunity, the question of: ‘if our leaders are ‘lixo’ and get away with any transgression’; albeit a much more subtle form in that of tax evasion, money laundering, political gerrymandering and tinkering and corruption in political office, then how can you expect lowly paid favela resident, Mr de Sousa who has been treated like crap his whole life, to toe the line? Moot point, isn’t it? Wake up Brazil. Your double standards are sickening.

  2. Good article.

    A couple of points i’d like to add : as with the US, being sent to prison for minor crimes such as drug possession and mixing non-violent offenders with hardened criminals is a big problem.

    And secondly, unlike the US, it’s a serious flaw in the Brazilian judicial system that frees any prison once they turn 18. So for example, a 17 year old can commit a horrendous crime – and then be released a year a later, under Brazilian law.

  3. @ Barry although you may be right in some points, again 2 wrongs do not make one right, so there is no excuse for bad behaviour.

    @ reporter – I understand completely what you are saying but the US has as bad or even worse crime rates in some places. So is it a great example of a system that really works?

    So the way society is organized says much more about crime rate.

    Just look art Northen EU, more egalitarian societies, social concern, an equal opportunity policies = lower crime rate.


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