The Cracking Brazilian Mirror

Over 140 killed. Gangs taking over the prisons. Images of shirtless black and brown bodies patrolling rooftops. A temporary wall to separate one faction from another. Through a stream of riots in the first weeks of 2017, Brazilians prisons have conquered the (national and international) media’s imagination.

But this is not a new story. In October 1992, the Carandiru massacre in São Paulo made clear the lack of order in the nation’s prisons as a riot followed by a hasty military police storming of the 100-year-old-facility left 111 dead. All but nine of them had been killed by the security forces. The colonel of the operation was later sentenced to 632 years in prison, only to have his sentence voided in 2006 (shortly whereafter he was assassinated). In 2013 and 2014, a few dozen policemen involved in the operation were handed lengthy prison sentences. But by 2016, these sentences had also been nullified.

Carandiru came in an era of human rights atrocities in Brazil. Declining economic strength, over-militarized security forces, and political chaos at the national and state level both fueled and allowed the continued perpetration of atrocities.

Within prisons, extreme overcrowding, aging infrastructure, and lack of security or oversight, those incarcerated in prisons across Brazil have, since the new year, made use of arms and goods smuggled in to attack other individuals and security guards, as well as tunnel out to freedom. The situation is bleak and there is little hope it will improve.

Authorities have blamed much of the violence on the First Capital Campaign (or PCC—is it is known within the country), Brazil’s largest and most powerful cartel. In a cruel repetition of the past, the PCC was in fact founded within São Paulo’s prisons by survivors of the Carandiru massacre as a way to protect themselves against vigilante attacks and advocate for better conditions. As prison overcrowding continued in the decade following Carandiru, the gang quickly gained power across Brazil’s largest prison before forming alliances across the country’s less densely populated but also more violent north (most of Brazil’s highest murder rates occur in northern provincial capital cities). It is now one of the primer controllers of the country’s drug trade.

In 2006, the PCC orchestrated a five-day wave of violence across São Paulo, an event interpreted by some as a way both to gain control of additional territory (most of Brazil’s poorest urban areas have no state police presence) but also demonstrate the gang’s power to their competitors and the general public. The 2017 prison riots appear to have somewhat similar aims.

So what to do?

As someone predisposed to offer sympathetic readings of the hardships faced by those incarcerated, the Brazilian example is a difficult one to approach. In many ways, it reflects US realities, with extreme overcrowding complicating all operations of the prison. By all accounts, gangs run Brazilian prisons, with official administrators either helpless or complicit in structures of control that divvy up different gang affiliated individuals to different cell blocks. A tense peace normally reigns, with laxity of oversight allowing the smuggling in of goods and occasionally people as well as open communication with the outside in exchange for minimized violence. It is clear that this status quo has given way over the past few weeks.

There is a need for control in Brazilian prisons. That means more security forces, stronger controls, increased surveillance, etc. That is the opposite of a decarcerated future that we push for. But for now, I struggle to see a clearer path forward. Let us only hope that this change is temporary.

The main change needed in Brazil is to lower the number of incarcerated individuals. Black citizens, as self-classified, are overrepresented in prison by 4.4 times the distribution in the nation’s national population as a whole. Gang violence, indeed a problem in Brazil—and only getting worse as the national and state governments face huge budget deficits—is blamed as primary driver of the prison population that has more than doubled since 2002. Yet this is an inadequate explanation. The processing of crimes is slow, and there is little to no access to adequate legal care for indigent citizens accused of crimes. (For more: see this highly useful Human Rights Watch report on Brazil’s criminal justice shortcomings.) In the midst of a recently imposed 20-year federal freeze on social spending, things look grim. Still, we can always hold onto hope (albeit fleeting) that the future may bring a recommitment to social services and, more particularly, criminal justice resources.

Even as Brazil’s social spending boomed over the past decade and a half under the leftist popular government of the Worker’s Party, prison conditions deteriorate. Those deemed “criminals” did not enjoy the benefits of an otherwise expanding state apparatus of welfare. Consequently, the ongoing, undemocratic retraction of government expenditure could be disastrous.

Brazil’s (installed) President Michel Temer has committed to building 30 prisons in the next year in order to alleviate overcrowding. This is the easy, and somewhat terrifying, way out. More prisons may well temporarily improve conditions. But they will quickly create the incentive to incarcerate ever higher levels. Empty spaces will be filled. Overcrowding will return. And evermore, the accused and those found guilty, without fair representation, will languish in prisons.

Looking at Brazil from the US, many of the realities are familiar although admittedly worse. Reformers and abolitionists alike would struggle to offer immediate solutions. Indeed, it seems, we must perhaps admit to ourselves that order within prison, within reason, is a necessary thing.