The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Brazil has been so prone to deadly prison riots

At least 52 people were killed in a prison riot in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, authorities said on July 29. (Video: Reuters)
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Monday’s prison riot in Brazil that killed at least 57 people — 16 of whom were decapitated — was only the latest spasm of horrific violence to strike the South American country’s overburdened penitentiaries. And experts fear it is part of a trend that will not end anytime soon.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came to power partly behind a pledge to tackle violent crime and gang activity, vowing to “stuff prison cells with criminals.” The problem, experts say, is that the government has not committed to providing the resources to the country’s overcrowded and underfunded prison system to handle the ballooning inmate population.

“As shocking as yesterday´s prison riot in Altamira was, it is hardly unprecedented,” said Robert Muggah, director of the Igarapé Institute, a security think tank in Rio de Janeiro.

In effect, Bolsonaro’s hard-line approach is exasperating a crisis that has already led to several shocking bouts of deadly violence like Monday’s, according to advocates and researchers in Brazil. It has also fueled calls for a complete rethinking of how a nation that incarcerates close to 1 million people approaches criminal justice.

“By insisting on high incarceration in overcrowded prisons, Bolsonaro wants to increase the dose of the poison that is killing us,” Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher the University of Sao Paulo’s Violence Studies Center, told The Washington Post.

At least 57 inmates killed in Brazil prison riot; 16 decapitated

Monday’s riot marked the second time in less than three months that such clashes occurred. In late May, violence erupted in four prisons in Brazil’s northwestern Amazonas state. At least 55 inmates were strangled or stabbed to death — some in front of visiting family members.

That violence was apparently sparked by rivalries within the Northern Family, a Brazilian gang. Warring inmates used sharpened toothbrushes to inflict deadly harm.

There were so many dead bodies that refrigerated trucks had to transport the corpses to other states for autopsies.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro said the leaders involved would be transferred to other facilities. But Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima told a Brazilian newspaper at the time that “it is nearly impossible to prevent these types of situations.”

Prison inmates in Brazil stabbed to death in front of visiting family members; at least 55 dead

May’s riots followed an even more deadly spate of violence in January 2017, when 120 inmates were killed in prisons throughout the country.

Again, gang activities within the prisons were blamed for touching off the killing. Members of the First Command, Brazil’s largest gang, and the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command, clashed — though prison officials said there was no clear pattern of confrontation surrounding the killing rampage.

“It was barbaric. Some were beheaded; others had their hearts or intestines ripped out,” Uziel Castro, security secretary of Roraima prison said at the time.

The riot provoked calls across the country for the federal government to help quell the unrest in Brazilian prisons.

But more than two years later, the problems causing the violence in Brazil’s prisons persist and threaten to get worse.

In the past decade, Brazil’s prison population has grown from around 500,000 to nearly 800,000, making it the third-largest in the world. Thirty percent of the inmates are prisoners who are still awaiting trial.

The prisons themselves are not built to sustain that kind of crowding. In Altamira jail in Para state, where Monday’s killings occurred, 343 people were crammed into a facility that was built for 163 inmates. Government efforts to build more prisons have faltered, leading to the dangerous overcrowding.

The problem shows no sign of abating as Bolsonaro continues to call for an increase in imprisonment, said Muggah. “This resonates with many Brazilians who are increasingly numb to prison massacres” and continue to worry about violent crime in a country that last year recorded the most homicides in the world, he said.

Meanwhile, rights activists continue to call attention to the squalid conditions and assault prisoners face, including torture, violence and sexual abuse.

And although Brazil’s government has tried to decrease violence by sending gang leaders to prisons far from their home turf, the policy has backfired, instead helping to expand the groups’ reach, experts say.

Muggah told The Post in May that the violence in prisons serves as “a reminder to this government of the severity and complexity of the challenge they face.”

“It underlines the fact that this is a problem that requires not just building more prisons or arresting more people,” he said, “but rethinking approaches to reform entirely.”

Marina Lopes contributed to this report.