Why a Tough-on-Crime Approach Won’t Solve Brazil’s ‘Epidemic’ of Prison Violence

Published on WPR

Sixty-two people are dead following a riot at a prison in northern Brazil earlier this week. Fifty-eight inmates were killed when a fight broke out between rival gangs at a prison in Altamira, in Para state, including 16 who were beheaded. Four more inmates were murdered while being transferred to a different facility. In an email interview with WPR, Robert Muggah, co-founder and research director at the Igarape Institute in Rio de Janeiro, explains why deadly prison riots are so common in Brazil and why President Jair Bolsonaro’s pledges to crack down on violent crime will probably only make the problem worse.

World Politics Review: What are the main drivers of violence in Brazil’s prisons?

Robert Muggah: Brazil has more than 1,500 state prisons, most of which are overcrowded and suffer from barbaric conditions. The Altamira prison facility, where this week’s slaughter took place, had 343 detainees crammed into a space designed for just 163. The same prison experienced a riot that killed eight people last year. According to government records, between 1995 and 2018, Para state’s prison population exploded from 1,153 to 16,505 despite there only being space for 7,950 inmates. This was the quintessential tragedy foretold.

Brazil’s prison population is the third-largest on the planet after the U.S. and China. There are as many as 812,000 inmates in jails across the country, even though there is only officially space for less than 418,000. Around 3,000 new inmates are added to bulging penitentiaries each month, but no one knows exactly how many prisoners there are due to discrepancies between records kept by the National Prison Department and the National Justice Council. What is certain is that the prison population is growing rapidly: Over 200 percent since 2000.

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