Could the riot in Brazil spark change in its prisons?

Vast overcrowding in Brazil's prison system has made security impossible. More funding may be just a small part of the solution.

Michael Dantas/Reuters
Relatives of prisoners react near riot police at a checkpoint close to the prison where around 60 people were killed in a prison riot in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, Brazil, Jan. 2, 2017.

A dispute between rival gangs that left at least 56 dead in a northern Brazilian prison on Monday has renewed attention on the appalling state of the country’s penitentiaries.

State authorities say the grisly attacks were part of an ongoing war between two gangs known as the North Family and the First Capital Command (PCC), after a truce was broken last year.

“This is the biggest prison massacre in our state’s history,” Sergio Fontes, public security secretary for Amazonas state, told reporters at a news conference. The attacks, Mr. Fontes added, were proof of the inadequacies of a system that leaves responsibility for prison management and funding to the states – an argument that echoed one long made by human-rights and prisoners’ advocates, who blame Brazil’s federal government for allowing prisons to slide into the control of gangs as ranks have swelled.

“What happened here is another chapter of the war that narcos are waging on this country and it shows that this problem cannot be tackled only by state governments,” he said.

Brazilian President Michel Temer plans to allocate federal funding to state prisons, saying last week that some $366 million would go toward building new prisons and improving infrastructure and security in existing ones.

But the incident may open debate in Brazilian power circles over the proper shape of prison reform, one that casts the recommendation of many criminal-justice researchers against the priorities of a law-and-order approach to the drug trade that still carries weight with much of the public and political class.

Brazil’s prisons house more than 600,000 people – about 61 percent more than its facilities can hold, according to Human Rights Watch – making it harder for authorities to maintain control. Recent austerity measures have further undercut prison authorities’ efforts.

“Every year 500 inmates die in Brazilian prisons,” former security secretary Jose Vicente da Silva told the Associated Press. “With the current economic crisis and the budget cuts, the gangs get even bolder."

But the problem is a long-term one: in the past decade and a half, the incarceration rate has grown 10 times faster than its population growth, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, mostly due to arrests for drug possession and a pre-trial system that eschews electronic monitoring, bail, and other alternatives to detention.

Local governments have begun to respond to the latter problem. In January 2016, Human Rights Watch praised a 2015 pilot program in every state capital that whisked new detainees before a judge soon after their entry to determine whether to keep them behind bars or release them.

Authorities have been less willing to change course on drug laws, even as liberalization fervor has swept other countries in the hemisphere. It may have to do with the peculiarities of its drug problem: Crack use has become increasingly prevalent there, accounting for about 35 percent of illegal drug consumption, wrote the Brookings Institute in 2016.

“The visibility of crack consumption and the resulting public outcry has motivated government and law enforcement authorities to adopt a tough approach toward drug users and pushers,” the Institute said in a report.

The previous year, The Christian Science Monitor noted that drug laws in Brazil have remained antithetical to a public-health approach, despite a 2006 law that decriminalized marijuana in small amounts for personal use:

Conviction as a “user” in Brazil currently leads to a criminal record and increased penalties for any future crime, while conviction as a trafficker leads to a minimum of five years behind bars. Brazil’s laws mirror many that flooded the region starting in the 1980s amid a hard-line “war on drugs."

But a focus on total prohibition has resulted in too much arbitrary sentencing and severely overcrowded prisons, many observers say. Poorer Brazilians have also taken a hit from sentencing guidelines that encourage classification of defendants by socioeconomic status, often leaning on things like the neighborhood where they were arrested to determine if they are a user or a trafficker.

This report contains material from Reuters.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Could the riot in Brazil spark change in its prisons?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today