The overcrowding of prisons is often associated with the loss of state control in public infrastructure. Across the region, inmates in overcrowded prisons have claimed control over what were supposed to be their centers for detention, and violence and killings become increasingly common. The series of prison riots in Brazil earlier this year demonstrate the institutional and human costs of the region’s chronic rates of over-incarceration.
But that’s just the manifestation of a deeper problem.
Brazil’s extreme income inequality leaves impoverished communities, as in Amazonas state, at extreme risk for violence associated with drug trafficking. Unfortunately, drug policies in Brazil have only increased the incarcerated population. In 2015, the Brazilian government passed a law lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. That, in conjunction with raising the minimum jail time for drug trafficking from three years to five years, not only flooded already-overcrowded prisons with new detainees, it aided the burgeoning and the newly privatized prison system in Brazil—replicating the prison industrial complex in the United States.
Brazil is among the countries in the region facing the systemic issue of “policies that over-incarcerate.” The policy has resulted in taking the drug wars from the street to close quarters in over-populated prisons. And privatization only has worsened the trend; under current law, public inspection of prisons is prohibited in private centers, preventing the state from identifying and addressing inhumane conditions such as poor food, overcrowding or insufficient health services—conditions that tend to spawn violence and criminality within prison walls.
Estimates have it that Brazil will need to invest over $3 billion to address prison overcrowding. This leaves the government to either invest itself or permit greater investment from the private sector—though under current conditions at the risk of little oversight by the state. And here’s a strange contradiction: to get the private sector more involved the government has to promise that there will be a growing population to fill new prisons and existing vacancies. It’s a prescription for even more overcrowding.
The new private prison industry in Brazil will also need to deal with the growing rate of incarcerated women and their treatment. In Brazil, like many prison trends across the Americas including the U.S., women are the fastest growing incarcerated population. If Brazil chooses to follow for-profit prison models like those in the U.S. and the UK, it will need to find ways to address more fairly the criminalization of women. This will include the issue of abortion, which under Brazilian law is illegal, except in the cases of rape or to save the woman’s life in the event of a medical emergency. Currently, the criminalization of abortion is under review by the Brazilian courts. However the court decides the issue of a woman’s right to choose, the locking away of women who choose an abortion should not be a factor in the sentencing of women to overcrowded prisons and could present an opportunity to reduce overstuffed prisons.
With the Brazilian 2018 general election nearing, the presidential and congressional candidates need to discuss how they plan to address Brazil’s prison problem. Central to that debate should be a discussion on the decriminalization of drugs and prison reform, including the end of mega-prisons. Since Brazil’s move toward private prisons is relatively new (since 2013) the opportunity is ripe to discuss the role of the prison industry, its impact on state control and the incarceration of women. By not addressing these critical issues, the Brazilian government will fail to address one of the most important issues confronting not just security in the South American giant but the capacity of the state to confront the root problems of criminality and human rights abuses.
Abraham Arias is a student at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte