Wave of Prison Riots Leaves 130 Dead in Brazil

In the first month of 2017, a series of at least eight bloody riots have taken the lives of over 130 inmates in prisons across Brazil. In only a few weeks, this year’s prison deaths in Brazil have reached over 36 percent of the number of people that died in Brazilian prisons last year, according to Folha de S. Paulo. Michel Temer, current President of Brazil, aims to counteract the growing Brazilian debt with PEC 241

On January 1, 59 people died  and over 130 prisoners escaped during a riot at the Compaj Prison in the state of Amazonas. According to The New York Times, the main perpetrators of the killings were members of the prison gang Familia do Norte who targeted members of a rival gang, the First Capital Command, or P.C.C. as it is known in Brazil, during the 17-hour riot.

Subsequent riots in the first two weeks of January have shed light on Brazil’s broken prison system.

Although prison riots in Brazil are common, heightened tensions between rival drug gangs in the fight for control of the cocaine trade were the main cause of the most recent riots, as well as the overcrowded conditions of Brazil’s prisons that make it difficult for  wardens to keep control.

The January 6 riot in a Manaus prison located in the northern state of Roraima has led to debates on whether or not Brazil should turn to private companies for prison management. The Manaus prison was built to hold only 700 inmates, but it currently holds double that number. Overall, over half a million people make up Brazil’s prison population and 40 percent of detainees are currently awaiting trial, according to The New York Times.

Responses to the recent riots show that public opinion is mixed regarding prison conditions. According to Latin American Weekly Report, Bruno Júlio, the former youth secretary of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, expressed his thoughts on the January 1 Manaus riot, saying “I wish [the prisoners] killed more. There should be a massacre every week.”

Federal lawmaker Fernando Francischini reportedly commented that “Good families are giving a standing ovation” to the news of the bloody riots, showing that apparently much of the Brazilian population is not in favor of showing mercy to the country’s criminals.

For his part, President Michel Temer took three days to respond to the same riot, saying it had been a “terrible accident” at the hands of a private company that ran the prison. Temer’s late and ambiguous response, however, received criticism from many Brazilians who believe the government is not doing its part in taking responsibility for prison violence.

The New York Times interviewed José Moisés, a political science professor at the University of São Paulo, who said, “This is a challenge to civilization . . . It was not a good response,” regarding Temer’s words about the crisis.

Given the historic lack of government action regarding prison riots, the UN has spoken out about Brazil’s broken prison system by calling for impartial and complete investigations into riots in 2014. No recent calls for action have been announced by the UN regarding the latest riots.

Human Rights Watch, however, recently published an article on January 18 in Foreign Affairs calling for significant reform to address overcrowding and negligence in Brazil’s prisons. Senior Researcher at HRW, César Muñoz, outlined key steps for reform, including the decriminalization of personal drug use and increased hiring of prison guards and other prison personnel.

Prison reform, although, is easier said than done in a country where 57 percent of the population believes that “a good criminal is a dead criminal,” according to a 2016 survey.

To add insult to injury, the Brazilian government is juggling other crises, including persistent corruption allegations, an economic recession, and a 46 percent disapproval rating, that make it clearer and clearer that prison reform will most likely remain on the backburner of Brazilian politics.