Brazilian Prisons Face Tough Road after New Criminal Law Passed

July 2015’s passage by the lower house of Brazil’s Congress of a constitutional amendment reducing the age of criminal responsibility for a range of crimes has put the plight of Brazil’s prisons back in the spotlight. The law lowers the age of responsibility from 18 to 16 for a range of violent crimes like rape, murder, and assault and battery. Though immensely popular among Brazilians, significant questions remain about how the prison system in Brazil will evolve in its wake, specifically what the country will do with the potential influx of inmates.

The problems with the Brazilian prison system are legion and well-documented. Brazil has the world’s fourth highest and by far the fastest growing prison population in the world. At almost 600,000 persons, the country’s prison population has exploded by 143% from 2001 to 2014. This in a country that experienced 13% growth of the general population over that time, and an equivalent 14% growth in prisons.

This has led to conditions labelled “medieval” by both human rights groups and Brazilian Government officials. According to the country’s Justice Ministry the prison population exceeds the available space by over 200,000 inmates, which equates to a 160% occupancy level. Reports persist of facilities where prisoners outnumber guards by 100 to 1 and where overcrowding has reached five or six times the suggested number per cell.

Brazil’s justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, estimated that the new law will introduce up to 40,000 inmates to an already overstretched and suboptimal system. The government has not announced plans to build more prisons to meet this demand.

Complicating the universally-acknowledged need for reform and improvement of the penal system is the country’s ever worsening macroeconomic reality. After stagnating in 2014, Brazil’s economy looks to perform worse in 2015 (real GDP is expected to contract by 1.5%) due to continuing energy shortages, accelerating inflation and the fallout of the Petrobras graft scandal. As a result, the government has announced across-the-board budget cuts. It is not an auspicious environment for significant public investment in the country’s ailing prisons.

An opening for private operators?

As Brazil’s public prison system has shown itself incapable of handling and rehabilitating the country’s metastasizing incarcerated population, some states have begun experimenting with privatising their prisons. This switch has been made in the name of improved facilities (more space; stronger management; cleaner, more modern environment), improved outcomes and lower cost. Though this model has been criticised by civil libertarians – that only the third proposition will actually come to pass – it looks increasingly likely that Brazil will move further in this direction, as the country simply doesn’t have many other near-term options available.

The private prison model is not even three years old, with the first prison complex inaugurated in Ribeirão das Neves in the state of Minas Gerais. However, the model has started to gain traction in the face of the country’s austerity plans. Many industry observers are watching São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, which has trialled the privatisation of three prison facilities. In addition, many other prisons throughout the country, though still managed publically, have begun to outsource a variety of ancillary services, such as foodservice, cleaning, facility management and healthcare, to private companies.

Privatisation is still years away from keeping pace with the exploding inmate population, if ever. The government is moving slowly in this regard, waiting to see how the current programmes go. Nevertheless, the direction is clear and the Brazilian economy’s difficulties may end up making policy makers’ choice for them.


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