Brazil’s Prison Dilemma

The country’s prisons are overpopulated, brutally violent places, say Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho. So why do Brazilians tolerate them?

By: /
22 January, 2014
By: Ilona Szabó de Carvalho
Executive Director of the Igarapé Institute
Robert Muggah
By: Robert Muggah

Co-founder, Igarapé Institute; research director, SecDev Foundation

South America’s powerhouse faces tough dilemmas in 2014. On the one hand Brazil is hastily preparing to host two of the world´s premier mega-events – the World Cup starting in June and the Olympics just twenty-four months later. While the government is coming under heavy criticism for dragging its feet, they promise to be epic celebrations in a country that knows how to throw a party. Meanwhile, Brazilians are also gearing-up for a repeat of last year´s massive social protests. In the middle of 2013 more than a million people in 350 cities denounced poor quality services, the sky-rocketing cost of living, and the deterioration in public safety. It is hardly a secret that Brazil faces profound problems with violence, including more homicides than any other country on earth and an exploding prison population.

The way a society cares for its prison population in particular is a good index of its values and civility. A cursory inspection of Brazil’s penal justice system reveals a culture bordering on sadism. The country features the world’s fourth largest prison population, with roughly 550,000 inmates occupying cell space designed for less than 300,000. Almost half of them have yet to be tried and languish for years before seeing a judge. A study by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute found that one in five of all detainees were also jailed improperly. Severely over-populated and brutally violent, experts describe Brazil’s prisons as nothing short of barbaric. Almost a third of all inmate deaths are a result of murder – six times the homicide rate for the country as a whole.

Brazil’s prisons have been among the world’s most violent for decades. A 1992 prison riot in São Paulo’s infamous Carandiru jail left 111 members of rival gangs dead. It took more than two decades for riot police accused of killing them to finally be brought to justice. And it was to avenge the victims of the riot that the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), today the nation’s most powerful gang, was formed. Violence in Brazilian prisons amplifies violence on Brazilian streets. In 2006, the PCC launched a wave of attacks against law enforcement and penal personnel as a protest over prison conditions. At least 450 people were killed and riots were organized in more than 70 prisons.

Many of Brazil’s poorly managed prisons are lorded over by criminal gangs that serve as de facto judges, jurors and executioners. A recent government report describes crumbling facilities where torture, sexual violence, and beheading is rampant. In the notorious Pedrinhas penitentiary in Maranhão state, for example, some 60 inmates were brutally murdered in 2013. At least another 60 deaths were reported in the Pernambuco state prison system a few years earlier. Complicating matters, gangs recruit most of their rank and file from prisons and organize their business from within their walls. Even José Eduardo Cardozo, the Minister of Justice responsible for penal justice, described the prison system as “medieval”. He also recently announced that he’d rather die than be condemned to a Brazilian jail.

Brazil’s penitentiaries are filling-up faster than they can be built. Controversial privatization efforts are far from keeping pace with the ever-increasing numbers of detainees. Over-crowding and poor conditions have been repeatedly condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including as recently as December 2013. But with a dizzying average of 3,000 new incarcerations each month, the situation is becoming more horrendous by the day. The Brazilian criminal justice and penal system has been repeatedly criticized for its failings, including by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Justiça Global, not least for violating the government’s legal responsibility to protect human rights.

Not all of Brazil’s incarcerated population suffers equally. The penal system is intrinsically elitist. The minority of detainees claiming a university diploma or public connections are often issued separate cells and better conditions. The poorer are seldom afforded such treatment. One study found that more than 80 percent of prisoners could not afford to hire a lawyer. Making matters worse, in over 70 percent of all judicial jurisdictions there are no public defenders. As a result, more defendants are sentenced to prison than are released. Predictably, those killed in custody tend to be poorer Brazilians, a sobering finding of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions.

Although Brazil’s prison dilemma is widely acknowledged, virtually nothing has changed apart from a relentless increase in prisoners. A rash of federal and state investigations has confirmed that the penal system is disastrously over-crowded, stacked against the poor, and rife with police brutality. So why do the deplorable conditions of Brazilian jails and penitentiaries persist? One reason may be that Brazilian society tolerates the status quo. Criminals, so the argument goes, are simply unworthy of public concern. Opinion polls confirm that many Brazilians support tough penalties, prefer punishment over rehabilitation, and accept that police abuses may occur. And Brazil’s politicians lack not the material resources, but the political and moral resolve to do the right thing.

Turning around Brazil’s backward penal system will require a dramatic shift in public attitudes. If popular pressure is applied on politicians, entrenched resistance can be overcome. But real change requires political leadership. President Dilma Rousseff, herself imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship era, pledged to improve prison conditions. Sadly, she has yet to move the agenda forward. If she does, reforms should focus on reducing over-crowding and improving conditions. At the federal level, much needed changes in drug legislation could drastically reduce the non-violent offender caseload. States should be encouraged to adopt alternatives to pre-trial detention and invest in non-custodial sentencing and rehabilitation programs. The justice system need not be re-invented. What is required is the implementation of key provisions of the Constitution, not least safeguarding basic rights that all Brazilians are entitled to.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter