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.

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