Brazil’s prison crisis

This first week of January has seen two massacres of inmates in Brazilian prisons. The first took place in Manaus. Fifty-six inmates died, the highest number to be killed since the Carandiru prison complex massacre in São Paulo in 1992. But in that latter case it was the police who did the killing. In Manaus the violence reflected a war between criminal factions, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), an organization whose initial emergence in the São Paulo prison system was the result of the Carandiru massacre, and the Family of the North (FDN), allied to Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command (CV). The second massacre, in the state of Roraima, was initially seen as PCC payback for the killing of its members in Manaus, although doubts were subsequently cast by the state government authorities on whether the thirty-three victims were directly associated with the PCC’s enemies. What is beyond question is that these massacres embody the same forms of violence that have become associated with cartel killings in Mexico, decapitation and mutilation, and that there is a very large body of expert academic opinion that has been predicting an explosion of the powder keg of Brazil’s prison system for some time.

The initial reaction of the Brazil’s justice minister, Alexandre de Moraes, was to downplay a war between criminal factions as the principal explanation for the massacre in Manaus, describing such a hypothesis as “simplistic”. This was perhaps to be expected from someone who is a former head of the Public Security apparatus of São Paulo, whose PSDB government has been  widely blamed for a policy inconsistency that allowed the PCC to develop into a mafia-like organisation of national scope. Critics of the minister suggested that his main preoccupation as a leading member of the illegitimate government headed by Michel Temer was the criminalisation and repression of social movements protesting against the draconian austerity package being imposed by the coup and other unpopular measures on secondary education and pensions. Moraes certainly has an impressive track record of persecuting young people such as students occupying their schools, and has presided over a severe diminution of the human rights and anti-discrimination programs previously associated with his ministry. But as the crisis unfolded inconsistency became the norm throughout the administration, with Temer himself contributing to impression of chaos by choosing his words badly when he belatedly pronounced on the Manaus massacre in person, describing it as a “dreadful accident”.

What is really beyond discussion is that the role played by criminal organisations in Brazilian prisons reflects the fundamental contradictions of a policy of mass incarceration that places poor people, and in particular poor people of colour, into grossly overcrowded gaols whose inhuman conditions make them incubators of crime run by their more organised criminal inmates. Almost 700,000 prisoners are currently occupying places designed for 360,000. The problem is not simply that the responsible authorities do not control the day to day lives of prisoners within Brazil’s gaols (be they federal, state government or private company employees in the case of gaols whose administration has been franchised out to the private sector). It is that the criminals who have established their own order in these institutions are now running mafia-style operations that shape the lives of the residents of the poor urban communities from which the prison inmates come. Ironically, a truce between the PCC and CV in the state of Ceará in 2016 was actually welcome to many residents of the urban periphery because, paralleling the experience of PCC hegemony in São Paulo, it reduced levels of violence and homicide and offered them some respite from the arbitrariness and violence of the police. The collapse of such agreements immediately sounded warning signals both in the communities themselves and amongst expert commentators. But government clearly failed to react.

After the Manaus massacre, the federal authorities hastily announced a new national security policy. Although some elements of this might in principle be welcomed, I find myself agreeing with supreme court judge Gilmar Mendes on this occasion when he argues that building five new federal prisons is hardly a solution to the contemporary crisis, even if one accepts the logic of mass incarceration in the first place, since action is needed now and prisons are not built overnight. Mendes suggests that one of the immediate problems behind overcrowding, that ridiculous numbers of prisoners are in gaol for preventive reasons awaiting judgement of their cases, could be resolved by assembling a judicial task force to clear the backlog, and he also endorses the view that decriminalising drug possession would be a sensible measure. The government plan does refer to adopting more alternative non-carceral penalties for minor crimes. But it is clear that there is no real intention to embrace a radical change in the approach to policing the poor that results in the current patterns of mass incarceration, a pattern that clearly has much in common in its logic and historical underpinnings to that of the United States. Cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment is the norm for all prisoners in Brazil, who join the factions simply to survive in these awful conditions. But proposals to place the top leaders of criminal factions in maximum security gaols go a step further: they would be isolated and subject to a special regime which would include such barbarous treatment as allowing them only limited daily exposure to fresh air and sunlight. This model resonates with US practices for the punishment of major foreign drug traffickers, policies that have had absolutely no positive effect in terms of restraining the growth of international drug-trafficking. As Mexican experience shows, removing kingpins in fact tends to produce greater fragmentation and violence, and that is surely the last thing that Brazil needs (although the situation is clearly moving in that direction already). Prisons cannot be built overnight, but the leading criminals in Brazilian gaols could easily be replaced by other traffickers overnight. None of this will stop the competition for control of drugs and arms trafficking routes that lies behind the current violence. It could easily make it even worse.

There are promises to take more serious measures to block cell phone signals in gaols, to impede the organisation of criminal networks on the outside from within prisons. But even assuming that this does finally happen, it would seem naive to imagine that modern digital technologies are the only way of sustaining communications. Nor, once again, is it clear that less organised and more diffuse networks and organisations are preferably if the public interest lies in reducing violence and mayhem. There is also a lot of talk of improving intelligence gathering, but one of the many problems in Brazil is getting the fragmented and self-serving police corporations to share information with each other, a problem that has been compounded by the imposition of neoliberal style performance targets and performance-related pay systems. The technological challenge of policing Brazil’s frontiers will remain daunting even with new technologies (such as greater use of drones), but the human and organisational problems are the most crucial, and progress on solving them is unlikely to be made without police reform of a fundamental and radical kind.

Such reform seems unlikely to take place under the present regime, but this is not simply a problem of resistance from the police corporations themselves. Brazil is now launched on a trajectory of regression in economic, social and human rights that will make a policing system that has always principally been about keeping the lower classes in their proper place more essential than ever. Social regression accompanied by police repression will ensure not only that the markets for illegal commodities continue to expand, but that criminal protection rackets and the scope for criminal organisations to substitute for the state as an ordering force in poor communities will increase too. Brazil is one of the world’s most violent societies, and the new regime established by the coup against Dilma Rousseff is not responsible for problems that became deeply entrenched under previous governments. The PT governments offered social policies that had positive and countervailing effects, but their record on public security policy must be criticised (and has been criticised in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities). Yet more of the same misguided thinking under the deteriorating social and economic conditions created by the coup can only have increasingly catastrophic consequences. On this as in many other areas, the government of Michel Temer seems paralysed by its own incompetence and the narrowness and backward-looking  nature of its social vision.

It is not simply a matter of having embraced a neoliberal austerity package at the very historical moment in which the failure of that fix had become apparent almost everywhere else. The 2016 coup was a socially atavistic movement directed by a small elite that seems incapable of keeping its mask on. This week’s events have brought yet another resignation from the Temer administration. Bruno Júlio, National Secretary for Youth, disgraced himself by remarking that what the country really needed was a “prison massacre every week” (to reduce the number of criminals in circulation). He explained his point of view by saying that it came naturally to someone who was the son of a police officer. What this lamentable expression of a longstanding authoritarian unreason  underscores is that the problem is not really in the prisons but in the way that the state relates to society. The further dismantling of human rights and Brazil’s already inadequate public health and education systems will only increase the violence associated with criminal factions whose influence and scale has been nurtured by the repressive state itself.

Nevertheless, there is an immediate problem in the prisons that is so serious that it demands extraordinary measures. A rushed program of judicial review of the cases of prisoners whose cases have yet to be heard (40% of those in gaol) could easily result in further injustice on top of the fact that preventive prison is already central to the punitive nature of justice as experienced by the poor. But an emergency program to reduce prison numbers quickly does seem feasible given that many of those currently occupying prison space clearly do not present any significant danger to society. Less than a third of sentenced prisoners have been convicted of crimes of violence. So this may well be the moment for Brazil’s very well remunerated judges to work overtime in order to grasp the nettle of ordering mass releases, whilst the legislature moves forward swiftly on sensible longer term measures to reduce prison populations. Unfortunately, good sense is something of a scarce commodity in the present congress. Whether Temer’s executive has the coherence, let alone will, to take serious new steps towards tackling the problem remains to be seen, but the prospects do not seem good on its miserable showing so far.