Prison riot in the Amazon brings to the forefront issues of overcrowding & the rise in incarceration rates; Brazil has 4th highest prison population in the world

removal of bodies
removal of bodies
Police remove bodies from Compaj (Photo: Marcio Silva of AFP)

Note from BW of Brazil: By now the news of a violent uprising inside of a prison complex in Manaus, in the state of Amazonas has shocked the world. Although the story caught me by surprise, I wasn’t at all shocked. After all, followers of this blog will remember that we reported a similar gruesome display of extreme violence in a São Luís, Maranhão, prison complex almost exactly two years ago. And also let us not forget that later this year in October will mark the 25th anniversary of the most infamous prison uprising in Brazil’s history, that of Carandiru in São Paulo which left 111 dead from either gunshots or stab wounds. Several top news outlets reported on this latest tragedy. Here is a small snippet of how the LA Times broke the story: 

“Brazilian authorities were frantically searching for 126 violent convicts Wednesday, days after they escaped from a maximum-security prison in the northern city of Manaus during a riot in which 56 inmates were killed. The 17 hours of violence broke out Sunday between two gangs competing for control of the cocaine trade through the Amazon. It turned into a massacre on a scale seldom seen. Many of the dead were decapitated or cut into quarters by fellow inmates and thrown over prison walls.”

Two details about this latest outbreak of violence in a Brazilian prison complex must be emphasized. The first is the rising number of prisoners being sent to jails and the issue of overcrowding in these prisons that are designed to hold only 400,000 but have already passed the 620,000 mark (some sources report 650,000). And with the sharp surge in its prison population in recent years, an expected growth in private prisons, politicians pushing for legislation that would lower the age of criminal responsibility, an economy in a tailspin and a government making drastic cuts in social spending, one has to wonder where Brazil is headed over the coming years.

Families of victims confront Military Police in search of answers

From Carandiru to Manaus, Brazil fills up prisons to unsuccessfully fight drug trafficking

Policy of mass incarceration arising from the war on drugs runs counter to the global tendency

By Gil Alessi

The medieval reality of the national penitentiary system, invisible foro part of the population, sometimes explodes like a bomb and brings to the surface the indifference with which Brazil treats the issue. The country, which has been cited in several UN Human Rights reports for the deplorable conditions of its prisons, has a history of tragedies behind bars. The largest of them in Carandiru, on October 2, 1992, when the disastrous intervention of the São Paulo Police to contain a rebellion in the Casa de Detenção (House of Detention) in the state capital ended with 111 murdered prisoners.

Anísio Jobim (Compaj) Penitentiary Complex in Manaus

More than 24 years later, on the first day of 2017, the second largest massacre of the prison system occurred: a factional squabble left 56 inmates dead at the Anísio Jobim (Compaj) Penitentiary Complex in Manaus. Cut into pieces and decapitated. Despite these large-scale tragedies that make headlines when shocking images of beheaded heads and hearts raised as trophies in prisons appear, experts point out that the Brazilian penitentiary system is a “poor grinding machine” that operates every day. Most of the 622,202 inmates who fill Brazilian prisons have a similar profile. More than 60% are black, mostly young, and 75% of them have only completed elementary school, according to data from the Ministry of Justice.

“Not only did nothing change from Carandiru to Compaj, but the situation worsened,” says André Bezerra, president of the Associação Juízes Pela Democracia (Judges Association for Democracy). “The penitentiary system is a poor grinding machine,” says Bezerra, referring to the profile of the incarcerated in the country. According to him, Brazil “plunged headlong” into policies of mass incarceration and war on drugs imported from the United States. “It was the paths adopted here to deal with violence and crime,” he says. “Only that you’re building prisons and they’re filling up. And this did not lead to a reduction in violence or trafficking. On the contrary. It favors whom? Organized crime. It’s fuel for crime,” he says.

Military Police seek to re-capture escaped prisoners who fled after uprising

São Paulo has the largest prison population in the country. Since the 1990s, the state has invested heavily in expanding vacancies in the prison system. Despite the construction of 22 prison units in the last six years (the vast majority of them already crowded), the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a criminal faction from São Paulo, only strengthened and spread throughout the country – and even to South American neighbors. Of the eight units newly built in São Paulo by the Government of Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), five are already overcrowded. The Piracicaba penitentiary, for example, inaugurated in July 2016 to house up to 847 prisoners already has a population of 1,213 people. The data are from the Department of Penitentiary Administration. “The 1988 Constitution prioritized the freedoms of the population over the punitive power of the state. But since its promulgation to date, this punitive power has only grown,” says the magistrate.

Detainees escaped through through a network of tunnels discovered at the prison complex. Some have already been re-captured (recapturado)

For Bezerra the most alarming thing is that Brazil is going against the world with regard to prison politics. “The United States, which has created the policy of war on drugs and which has the largest prison population in the world, is already beginning to review the strategy, with leniency and drug decriminalization,” he says. But in Brazil, “Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes wants to deepen punitivism even more, and even talk about eradicating marijuana from the continent.” Data from the Ministry of Justice indicate that most of the country’s prisoners were arrested for drug trafficking (28%), compared to 25% for robbery, 13% for theft and 10% for homicide.

Among the countries with the largest prison population, Brazil is the champion of overcrowding


Currently Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world – 622,202 people behind bars. But in a few decades the country may surpass the United States (2,217,000), China (1,657,812) and Russia (644,237) if it continues to hold at this rate. According to the latest National Survey of Penitentiary Information (Infopen), released by the Ministry of Justice in April 2016, the rate of imprisonment in Brazil increased by 67% between 2004 and 2014. According to the study, Brazil is going against other countries with large prison population, which has been reducing the rate of arrests.

The conditions of detention here are also worse. According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies, among the countries with the largest prison population, Brazil is the champion of overcrowding: the prison occupation rate here is 147%. In the United States it is 102.7%, Russia is 82.2% and China is unknown.

Part of this overcrowding is explained by the slowness of the courts in analyzing the defendants’ lawsuits. Among the Brazilian detainees, 40% are provisional, that is, they were not convicted in the first degree and are still awaiting trial. The director general of the National Penitentiary Department (Depen), Renato De Vitto, said that “of these people who are provisionally arrested, 37% of them, when they are sentenced, are released.” That is, more than a third of the provisional prisoners are found innocent. “This indicates that we have in fact an excessive use of the provisional arrest in Brazil,” he says. According to the Depen, in all the states of the country there are prisoners awaiting trial for more than 90 days.

Six of the escaped prisoners from the penitentiary who were re-captured

The current president of the Federal Supreme Court, Carmen Lúcia, has already admitted that there is a flagrant violation in Brazilian prisons in relation to what is provided for in the law: “It is a problem of excessive number, without conditions, therefore, to comply fully with what was determined by the Supremo (Supreme Court), that is, people being there in conditions of dignity.” His colleague, Gilmar Mendes, has already made a similar alert, calling the jails “schools of crime”. “If the State does not provide the minimum of guarantee, someone provides it. Their way. And it demands a counterpart,” he said in 2014, referring to the factions that dominate the Brazilian prison system.

Mendes also drew attention to the fact that Brazilians are “indifferent” and “anesthetized” by the barbarism that occurs within the walls. Bezerra agrees. “For a portion of society and the state, the prisoners equal riffraff: people who aren’t in the labor market nor consume, are soon thrown into these dungeons,” says Bezerra.

Ricardo André de Souza, sub-coordinator of criminal defense of the Public Defender of the State of Rio de Janeiro, affirms that the Criminal Justice system and the resulting process of mass incarceration act in a “selective manner”. “The greatest impact is felt upon the most vulnerable, the lowest social strata,” who have to deal with “the stigma that hangs over ex-offenders and their families.”

In addition to the social impact of imprisoning thousands of people, Souza recalls that “there is also a budget issue: prison costs the public coffers dearly.” At the end of 2016 Minister Carmen Lúcia stated that one inmate costs 13 times more than a student in Brazil. “A prisoner in Brazil costs 2,400 a month and a high school student costs 2,200 a year,” she said, citing a quote from the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, who stated in 1982 that “if governors didn’t build schools, in 20 years money would be lacking to build prisons.” “The fact has been fulfilled, we are gathered here in the face of an urgent situation, a neglect done back then,” said the minister.

SourceEdição Brasil no EL PAÍS

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. there was also a second prison intra prisoner slaughter in Roraima just in the last few days, what seems to be a retaliation by the huge sao paulo drug gang , the pcc, from the slaughter in Manaus , recently.

    i outlined in another comment on another blog post, how these various drug gangs throughout the country , are getting flooded with coke and crack, and the farc, the marxist drug smuggling, kidnapping suposed armed rebellors in colombia , has thirty percent of the business . interesting since chavez of venezuela aided and abetted the farc and gave them money and let them pass through his borders , was also a big ally of lula and dilma and the pt…this drug violence increased over lulas administration and dilma also did nothing to really address this. no doubt all law enforcement agencies are getting payoffs at some level.brazil is the cash cow and is paying a huge price for being this cash cow for the farc and their helpers and supporters…of course there are other people cashing in also

    fernando beira-mar, associated with the commando vermelho of rio, who were supporting one of the drug gangs involved in the slaughters, was actualy caught with the farc. google up the sao paulo giant drug gang , the pcc, the other gang involved in the slaughters up in these prisons , with the farc and you will get pages of proof of their hook up. you can google up various areas in brazil and the farc and you will get various pages of hits .

    yes, drug laws and the huge amount of money involved that can bribe the system also, certainly contribute to the prison over crowding. will our societies ever get it?

    look at the pictures of these prisoners. this is from the north and north east amazonas areas, Manaus and Roraiama is the other prison with a recent riot intra prisonor slaughter and maiming of bodies.

    the mixture up there actualy has more native indian than white or black , yet all three mixtures are evident

    . most of these guys are light skinned ,a few for all intensive purposes could certainly classify as mixed race .

    this goes to my point that any colorisation incidents in the media, or notions of whitening of brazil from the past , bring favors for light skinned and mix raced people in brail , are totaly dwarfed by seeing the real reality, that light skinned and mixed race people in brazil only get marginalised like darker afro descendants.

    while colorisation exists, there are much larger intense issues about the fault lines for all brown and black people in brazil

    and the intra race slaughter over drug money and territory , is the elephant sitting in the room , hardly addressed in brazil or the usa political agenda discusions about what is wrong with these countries , along with personal integrity and responsability seems to be left out….for all intensive purposes, the activist political militant agendisers have left the poor black afro desendant communities.

    when police shot black people in their neighborhoods in brazil and the people rioted in protest, i didnt see any red flag , black bloc or anarchists, coming to their side to protest also…they came out for unatainable goals like stop the copa, eliminate bus fares and save the dogs from shelters

    young males seem to have the notion that when it comes to their chance to make money, pulling a gun and shooting at your oponent in a crowded area , and that goes for the police too, doesnt have any consequences in the moral sence…when men pull their guns to shoot, women children and old mens rights to live , go out the door

    actualy, this is very relevant to black women of brazil, since, at the site of these various intra prisoner slaughters at the prisons, are huge amounts of black women, light skinned and mixed race, shocked and concerned for their family members in prison ,achingly waiting for some notice of their loved ones…this is something very big in the black woman of brazils life , for many who have male relatives in jail…mostly for flawed drug laws

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