By Kate Rintoul, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — In the last week of August, riots broke out in four prisons across Brazil, killing eight inmates and prompting the UN to call for reforms as overcrowding and poor conditions have made prisons hotbeds for crime and violence. The week began in Cascavel, Paraná, on Sunday, August 24th, when a large criminal gang of inmates took two guards and several other occupants hostage while making demands for better food and medical care in the prison.

At Cascavel Prison a large criminal gang of inmates took two guards hostage and killed four inmates
At Cascavel Prison a large criminal gang of inmates took two guards hostage and killed four inmates while demanding for better food and medical care in the prison, image by Agencia Brazil.

In response to the deaths, the South America representative for United Nations Human Rights Commission (OHCHR), Amerigo Incalcaterra said on August 29th that Brazil needs to review its criminal policy which is currently based on “excessive use of imprisonment as punishment for crimes.”

“It is not acceptable that, in Brazil, violence and deaths inside prisons are perceived as normal and everyday. The Brazilian authorities must react urgently to build a prison system respectful of human dignity, involving all branches of government and in accordance with international commitments and obligations of the country,” Incalcaterra said.

Incalcaterra also called for a “prompt and impartial” investigation by the Brazilian authorities for crimes committed within prisons and called for the “urgent” implementation of training, with an emphasis on human rights policies, for all those working in the prison system.

At Cascavel, the group of rioters set objects on fire and caused damage to the prison before beheading two fellow inmates and throwing two others off the roof as a as a warning to the prison’s staff. As the siege continued, further riots erupted at two separate prisons in Minas Gerais in which inmates also started large fires, resulting in one death.

Chronic overcrowding and poor conditions, Brazil News
Chronic overcrowding and poor conditions led justice minister José Eduardo Cardozo to brand Brazil’s penal system as ‘medieval’, this image was taken on his visit to a prison in Bahia, Carol Garcia/AGECOM/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Then on Wednesday (August 27th) it was reported that an inmate had become the fourteenth murder victim this year at the Prison Complex in Maranhão, northern Brazil after arguing with cellmates debt because of drug trafficking.

Critics contend that rather than rehabilitating criminals, Brazil’s overcrowded prisons have become spawning grounds of gang activity. Experts say the poor state of Brazil’s prisons is a big part of the problem.

According to country’s Penitentiary Department at the Ministry of Justice, Brazil’s prison population has more than doubled over the past fifteen years, from 233,000 in 2000 to 513,802 in June 2011 and continues to rise.

Even the country’s Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, remarked in late 2012: “We have a medieval prison system, which not only violates human rights, it does not allow for the most important element of a penal sanction, which is social reintegration.”

Amerigo Incalcaterra thinks the latest spate of violence is in part down to the conditions inside prisons, “Overcrowding, poor prison conditions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees are a reality in many prisons in Brazil that also contribute to violence and in themselves constitute a serious violation of human rights,” he said.

For the sociologist Camila Nunes Dias, the Center for the Study of Violence, University of São Paulo (USP) and professor at the University of ABC, while continuing discussions aimed at building more prisons, there is no prospect of improvement. “It’s impossible to keep up with demand. This ends up generating overcrowding, which aggravates the conditions of establishments and gives rise to these very violent events such as what happened in Cascavel “he said in an interview with Brazil Post.

As Brazil’s government struggles to find a solution, criminal gangs have filled the vacuum. In exchange for loyalty and membership fees, they offer protection, bring supplies (including medical essential products), organize family visits and pay lawyer fees.

Brazil’s criminal code does not include the death penalty nor a life sentence so, in theory, every inmate will re-emerge into the outside world. Yet they often leave the system brutalized, lacking skills and more immersed in criminal activity than when they entered. This coupled with the country’s punitive attitude towards ex-convicts pushes re-offending rates to above sixty percent and perpetuates the cycle.


  1. The criminal justice system everywhere is in crisis, and we need alternative ways of doing justice. It would be better if an experience of human development resulted from contact with the courts and prisons. I have research on this if that would be helpful.



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