Brazilian prisons in crisis as inmate numbers swell by a third

Humanitarian watchdog exposes multiple violations including inmates being deployed as guards.

(Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Brazilian prisons are facing a "crisis" as a government crackdown on crime has sent prison numbers soaring by 33 per cent since 2008.

New laws to reduce the age of criminal responsibility in Brazil have heaped even greater pressure on the country's already creaking penitentiary system, according to human rights groups. Proposed legislation to reduce the age of criminal responsibility even further is an "atomic bomb" that is only adding to the problem.

What is going on in Brazilian prisons?

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Brazilian prisons are dangerously overcrowded. In June this year, The Guardian reported that the country's inmate population was more than 220,000 over total capacity; Human Rights Watch has estimated that there are around 607,000 people currently behind bars.

How long has the situation been like this?

By all accounts, the overcrowding crisis has been getting worse for a while. The last decade has seen the population of Brazilian prisons more than double. Brazil lays claim to the world's fourth-largest prison population but, while the number of inmates in the US, China and Russia has declined, Brazil's has grown by 33 per cent over the past six years.

Is it going to get worse, or better?

In all likelihood, the situation will get worse before any substantial improvements are seen, critics say. In July this year, Brazil's lower congressional house voted to reduce the age of criminal responsibility for crimes including murder and rape from 18 to 16, The Guardian reports.

High-profile murders and gang rapes committed by youths have led to a swell in support for lowering the age, with one poll suggesting that 87 per cent of adults approve of the reduction. Critics of the change describe it as an "atomic bomb" for the prison system.

Brazilian justice minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo says that lowering the age of criminal responsibility would add another 40,000 prisoners to the criminal justice system.

What do supporters of the bill say?

Some of the comments have been quite extreme. Laerte Bessa, the bill's sponsor, says that in time, Brazil will lower the age of criminal responsibility to as low as 12, before adding that in future foetuses will undergo assessments in order to determine their potential for criminality.

"One day, we will get to a stage in which we are able to determine whether a child in the womb has criminal tendencies and if it does the mother won't be allowed to give birth," Bessa said.

What are human rights groups saying?

The humanitarian watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), has condemned the country's prison system, saying it operates outside of regional and international minimum standards. In its report on prisons in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, HRW notes that inmates are asked to carry out guard duties.

Maria Laura Canineu, HRW's director in Brazil, said, "[Pernambuco] state has packed tens of thousands of people into cellblocks designed for a third as many people, and turned over the keys to inmates who use violence and intimidation to run the prison grounds as personal fiefdoms."

In analysing Brazil's prisons, HRW says that the current inmate population of 607,000 has been squeezed into facilities designed to cater for just 377,000.

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