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Q&A: Brazil prison riots part of a vast civil unrest

January 24, 2017
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Brazil Prison

Inmates in a Brazilian Prison (Pic Credit: Levi Stroud)

Tension, violence and deaths have erupted inside Brazilian prisons. In just the first 15 days of the year, gang disputes have led to about 135 inmate deaths in the country’s jails, including massacres in three states: Amazonas, Roraima and Rio Grande do Norte.

Ashley Lucas, an associate professor of theatre & drama, the Residential College and the director of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, says this level of violence betrays a state of vast civil unrest for the people of Brazil. Michel Temer’s government and those who run the country’s prisons should be judged by how they have failed to protect the most vulnerable of Brazil’s people, she added.

Q: The prison system in Brazil seems to be in complete chaos. It is well known that there is little rehabilitation and it is often referred to as a “factory” that produces even more dangerous criminals. How and where should the country begin to transform this reality?

LUCAS: In both Brazil and the United States, we have incarcerated unreasonably large segments of our populations. People who commit minor offenses should be diverted away from prisons. People who need drug and alcohol treatment or medical care should be sent to treatment centers and hospitals. People who commit crimes because they have no hope should be given opportunities to live differently and to have realistic expectations of a better life if they stop committing crimes.

If we want our society to be safer, we have to invest in all of the people in our communities. All of this is possible, but only if we decide that public safety and the dignity of all people is more important than punishment and structural inequality.


Q: Brazilian prisons are dominated by gangs. Can government be called an accomplice in the growth of organized crime in jails?

LUCAS: The government plays an enormous role in creating the economic conditions of drug trafficking within its own borders and in neighboring countries. The demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. has had an immense impact on the economies of Mexico, Colombia and other parts of Latin America.

I know less about how the drug trade operates in Brazil, but generally speaking, the criminalization of the drug trade in any country makes the business of buying and selling drugs much more lucrative for drug dealers and governments alike. Dealers charge higher rates for their products because of an increase in market demand, and governments have a strategic institutional system for maintaining class divides by disproportionately targeting large numbers of people who are poor, uneducated, dark-skinned and young.

The U.S. government actually helped to spread gang culture throughout Latin America because it incarcerated and then deported so many young Latin American gang members, who then taught U.S. gang culture and the organized drug trade to other young people in countries like El Salvador.


Q: We have just seen a wave of violence in some Brazilian jails. Prisoners were massacred and beheaded in a dispute between rival gangs. What has gone wrong over the years?

LUCAS: Brazil has gone wrong in the same way that the U.S. has gone wrong with prisons. In the simplest terms, we have locked up too many people. We have disproportionately harmed the young, the poor, the uneducated and those with dark skin.

More profoundly, we have decided that people who are in prison do not deserve basic human rights. We turn our backs on their suffering and justify our actions by saying that these people must deserve what is coming to them because of some breach in the social contract.


Q: Data shows Brazilian prisons are overcrowded and, recently, studies have shown that many prisoners are primary offenders—and some have yet to have their situation defined by justice. Does the slowness of justice also contribute to the problem?

LUCAS: “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal principle invoked in British and U.S. law as far back as the 1840s. The words became more widely quoted in the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as blacks fought for equal rights in the face of widespread and horrific violence.

Think about the torture of being held in a jail awaiting trial for years—years before a person has the right to defend herself in court. This happens to a great many people in Brazil and the U.S. How can that be just?


Q: The Brazilian government has issued a security plan where it promises to build more prisons in five regions of the country, one of them a maximum-security jail. Is attacking the consequence the best way to act in this emergency situation?

LUCAS: Every time a government builds a prison, there is a huge incentive to fill it. Building more prisons, particularly those with higher security and a greater use of solitary confinement, only leads to more human rights abuses against more people. This is antithetical to the value of public safety because studies consistently show that more prisons cause more crime.

If Brazilian prisoners did not live in a state of such terrible overcrowding and with so little protection from their own government, there would be no beheadings.


Q: What can some foreign prisons teach us? Are there examples or projects that have been successful?

LUCAS: Several Scandinavian countries have prison systems that work far better than those in the U.S. and Brazil. These countries have much lower crime and incarceration rates than we do, and they seek from the moment a person enters the prison system to prepare her for release.

Prisons ought to be places where we help people to prepare for lives in which they will not have the need or desire to commit new crimes upon their release.

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