By Lara Bartilotti Picanço

How Brazil’s overcrowded and underfunded penitentiary system contributes to the country’s public security crisis

On July 30, inmates killed nearly sixty fellow prisoners during a five-hour clash between rival gangs in Altamira prison in the northern state of Pará, an event that recalled the deaths of fifty-five inmates from different prisons in Amazonas state in May. Just two years earlier, in 2017, more than 120 inmates died over two days of fighting among rival gang members at prisons across Brazil’s northern states.

Outbreaks of deadly violence are not uncommon in Brazil’s prisons, which have struggled to accommodate the country’s steadily increasing prison population. In fact, the homicide rate for inmates is six times higher than the already-high national average. Yet voters and politicians have tended to view violence within prisons as separate from the public security crisis nationwide. When President Jair Bolsonaro and his Justice and Public Security Minister, Sergio Moro, promised voters that they would be tough on crime, much of their rhetoric focused on harsher penalties and jailing more criminals, rather than true penal system reform. However, the prevailing policy of mass incarceration may only exacerbate the existing violence and poor conditions that plague Brazil’s penitentiary system, while doing little to improve public security nationwide. Years of research and experience suggest policies targeting the inflow of inmates and recidivism—the likelihood of a convicted criminal to reoffend—are far more effective at reducing overall crime rates.

What Does Brazil’s Penitentiary System Look Like?

With over 811,000 inmates, Brazil registers the world’s third largest prison population, behind China (1.6 million) and the United States (2.1 million). Between 2000 and 2015, the United States’ prison population increased by 14 percent, while Brazil’s increased by a whopping 170 percent. Although the United States still incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world, incarceration trends are on a downward path: the country’s incarceration rate (which takes into account population change) peaked at 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults during 2006 and 2008 and has declined every year thereafter. Experts attribute this to a decreasing crime rate and changes in prosecution and sentencing patterns. In contrast, Brazil’s trend shows that the incarceration rate is still increasing. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Public Security, the country’s prison population will surpass one million in 2021, and reach 1.5 million by 2025. Yet, Brazil has just half of the cell space needed to accommodate its inmates today.