As Brazil’s beleaguered prisons continue to face problems involving drugs, corruption, escapes and riots, the pressure is on the government to fix what some analysts say are systemic and structural failures of the prison system.
This weekend saw 26 prisoners killed in a riot Saturday — the fifth deadly one this year — and another 28 escape Sunday.
As the problems mount, some Brazilian states are turning to the federal government for help.
Brazilian President Michel Temer has proposed some fixes, but has not quelled the concerns of some human rights group.
“We need a more rational prison system in Brazil. Our current system, by no fault of anyone specifically, arrests many people but not always the right people,” Amnesty International’s Human Rights adviser Renata Neder said. “We have a lot of prisoners who should not be in jail.”
Wave of deadly riots
The first riot of the year erupted at the Anisio Jobim Prison Complex (Compaj) in the city of Manaus, between incarcerated members of the the Familia do Norte (FDN) and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) groups. The riot lasted for more than 17 hours and left 56 dead.
The macabre nature of some of the deaths was alarming; some of the prisoners were decapitated, with their bodies tossed over the prison gates while others were incinerated in their sleep.
It even elicited a reaction from Pope Francis.
The head of that prison has been removed from office while an investigation takes place, state-run media agency Agencia Brasil reported.
Sergio Fontes, the public safety secretary for the state of Amazonas, said that the riot started over control of the drug trade behind the prison walls.
“They weren’t fighting because one is called one thing and the other one is called another. They are fighting for money,” he said.
Paulo Storani, a security expert and former Rio de Janeiro Elite squad military officer, told CNN he believes the prisoners had access to cell phones and weapons, which may have been smuggled in by family members or lawyers visiting the inmates.
“Many of these gangs were born within Brazilian prisons in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so they know how to operate inside the prison walls,” Storani said. “The Brazilian penitentiary system has not found a way to control the entry of cell phones, which allows many leaders to turn the prisons into their personal offices.”
Authorities in Manaus are also investigating– and still trying to catch inmates– after a prison break at the nearby Instituto Penal Antônio Trindade (IPAT).
Agencia Brasil reports that hours after the riot at Compaj and the prison break at IPAT were quelled, on the other side of town, four inmates were killed at the Prison Unit of Puraquequara (UPP).
Later in the week, in the neighboring state of Roraima, 33 inmates died at the Agricultural Penitentiary of Monte Cristo. Many of them were also beheaded.
Back in Manaus, a few days later, four people died during a riot at the Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa public jail in the northern part of the country. Three inmates were decapitated and one was asphyxiated. The jail, which was shut down in October because of improper conditions, was reopened to receive inmates after uprisings throughout the state. Nearly 300 prisoners had been transferred to the jail.
State of Brazilian jails
Temer and Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes announced the creation of a new National Security Plan days after the first riot.
Temer vowed to continue working on improving the state of the federal prison system and said he expects to approve the building of 25 new units.
Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world, and overcrowding is a significant problem.
More than 622,000 people are behind bars, according to its justice ministry — more than the United States, Russia and China.
Temer acknowledged that more jails needed to be built so that jails that accommodate 500 inmates don’t have to hold upwards of 1,200.
His new security plan also includes proposals for bringing technology like metal detectors and cell phone blockers to some of the prisons.
But Neder of Amnesty International believes the plan is “too broad” and says conditions in many of the country’s prisons are inhumane.
Data from Amnesty shows that the Manaus jail Compaj currently holds over 1,200 prisoners while only having capacity for 770. Amnesty reports that the Monte Cristo prison also is overcrowded, holding over 1,400 prisoners when it should be home to no more than 700.
Moraes, the justice minister, acknowledged this issue during a recent press conference and said he’s working with states to reduce the number of “temporary prisoners,” which includes those awaiting trial and those who have not yet been convicted.
Organizations like Amnesty have also called on states to ensure prisoners are receiving water and proper meals as well as providing proper access to health care.