In the first week of 2017, Brazil exploded into a series of prison riots. At least 97 prisoners died, already accounting for more than a quarter of the entire prison death toll in 2016. These rebellions arose from rifts between rival gangs, retaliations, and fundamentally inhumane prison conditions.
In response to the prison massacres, Brazilian President Temer announced his administration would construct 5 new maximum security federal prisons. In addition, Temer promised at least one new prison for each state. An additional $71.4 million will also allow for security improvements in existing prisons. Per Temer’s announcement, the prison budget for the first semester of 2017 totals $558.5 million.
For the average Brazilian, building more prisons can seem like a natural solution to the issue of prison violence. Indeed, Brazil’s prisons are overcrowded, with at least five inmates for every cell fit for three. Insufficient space puts small-time offenders in with big-time gang leaders, whose rivalries on the outside often explode into prison massacres on the inside. Separating everyone into different prisons is a logical solution.
But let’s take a step back and address why Brazil’s prison population is so disproportionately high in the first place. And, quick hint, it’s not because Brazilians commit more crimes. Rather, the Brazilian criminal justice system works as a sort of assembly line for popping out inmates to fuel investments in prison construction and maintenance.
Indeed, Brazil already boasts 22 privately managed prisons – the subject of last week’s Manaus prison massacre being one of them. The country’s first entirely privatized prison opened in 2013, launching a new era in for-profit prison construction largely based off of the existing American and English systems. With the fourth-largest prison population in the world, Brazil’s private prison policies incentivize mass incarceration and the construction of new prisons.
If that sounds too “conspiracy theory” for you, just think twice about the fact that 28 percent of prisoners are in for drug-related crimes. This population has increased by 339 percent since Brazil’s 2006 Drug Law, which criminalizes the possession of even minuscule amounts of illegal substances. In addition to criminalizing drug laws that feed youth of color into a for-profit prison system, Brazil’s legal system is so weak that 40 percent of its entire prison population hasn’t yet had the right to a proper trial.
Drug policy reform on the horizon
While lawmakers passed the 2006 Drug Law with the intent of decriminalizing drug use, it has had the opposite effect. The law increased the minimum jail time for trafficking from three to five years. Furthermore, it allows the police to decide on the spot whether a person is carrying drugs to use or sell. Unable to provide a proper defense, those caught with minuscule amounts of drugs can end up in jail for years. While inside, they are often recruited by gang leaders to survive prison violence and obtain livable conditions.
Rumor has it that 2017 might be the year in which Brazil’s Supreme Court finally approves drug law reforms. Justice Gilmar Mendes has pronounced himself in favor of decriminalizing drug use as a constitutional right to private life. Hopefully, the innumerable lives lost these first days of the year will encourage lawmakers to move drug policy reform forward. If so, Brazil may see a future with fewer prisoners, less prisons, and ultimately, fewer victims of crime.