Notes on prisons in Brazil

First published at the Genfangenen Info magazine #424

The origins of prisons in Brazil

The context of the beginning of prisons in Brasil was the colonial exploitation based on slavery by the portuguese, mainly of enslaved workers from Africa, but also of the native population (indigenous). Therefore, until today it’s impossible to separate the structure and meanings of prisons in Brazil from the legacy of the slave economic system based on the institution of racism and colonial predatory exploitation.

According to the black historian Suzane Jardim, the first institution of state, which deeply affected the characteristics of the Brazilian prisons, was the so-called “Calabouço” (Dungeon). Created in the sixteenth century, slaveholders could take their slaves there to be punished for whatever reason. It was commonly used against fugitive or disobedient slaves, but the enslaver didn’t need to prove any crime was committed to submit them. It was a kind of outsourcing service where, at a certain value, the enslaver farmer could condemn the slave to a certain number of whips or a certain type of confinement. The extreme brutality of the punishment would frequently kill them.

The Calabouço was part of a tradition of torture and social control that had the Catholic inquisition as a founding model. Torture was defended by the Brazilian ruling classes as a necessary means to maintain the slave-owning social order. In 1824, in Brazil’s first constitution, torture was officially abolished for free men, and continued to be indiscriminately used against slaves. In 1837, the process of deactivating the old Calabouço was initiated, and the “Correction House of the Kingdom” was created, the first institution in Brazil exclusively for the fulfillment of penalties for crimes. Between 1857 and 1858, more than 65% of the slaves who were permanently detained in the Correctional House were in these conditions because they were capoeira practitioners, fugitives, or taken to punishment.

Our intention is not to detail the history of prisons in Brazil, but only to show how, in its own origin, there are elements that show that mass incarceration is the fruit of a slaveholding legacy. Confinement, torture, overexploitation and destruction of the black or indigenous body are phenomena with deep roots in the practices of the local ruling classes and in the ideology prevailing in Brazilian society, both of which came from colonization.

The beginning of the organization and struggle against prisons in Brazil: the Unified Black Movement in the Brazilian business-military dictatorship.

On July 7, 1978, in the midst of a business-military dictatorship, the Unified Black Movement (MNU, in portuguese) was founded in a demonstration in front of the São Paulo municipal theater. This protest confronted the dictatorship as they took to the streets calling for an end to violence and racial discrimination, the spark was the death of Robson Silveira da Luz, a tradesman living on the outskirts of São Paulo. Robson was accused of stealing fruit on duty and taken by police to the Guaianazes police station. Trapped, Robson was tortured to death. We know that this type of situation is not new in the Brazilian police stations at that time and until today but, precisely because of this, the mobilization of the MNU around the case is so emblematic.

At the time, there was a broad movement of the Brazilian left for liberation, against torture and the assassination of the so-called “political prisoners”. Political repression had already killed journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1975, as well as hundreds of other students, workers, political activists and so many others persecuted on the basis of the dictatorship’s National Security Law. It turns out that Robson was not considered a “political prisoner”, but a common prisoner.

Allied to the MNU, there was an incarcerated organization called the Zumbi’s Grandchildren Fight Center. It was made up of Carandiru detainees who, in a letter read at the founding act of the MNU, denounced the inhuman and unhealthy conditions in which the prisoners lived, the torture and the murder to which they were subjected as well as the structural racism of the judicial system and prison. With this analysis they denounced that ordinary prisoners were also political prisoners and that, in order for the mobilization of the left for political rights to be effective, it had to be a struggle against the whole system of justice.

It is important to note the MNU militant position, which at no time raised the false moralist question, wanting to judge whether or not Robson deserved to be tortured and killed for allegedly being a criminal. The discussion of Robson’s innocence was not even raised in the MNU debate. Having stolen fruit or not, Robson could not have been tortured and killed while being arrested. No property crime is worth more than a life, and yet, the immense majority of the Brazilian left maintained a differentiation between the common prisoners, who supposedly deserved such treatment, and the “political prisoners”, who were being persecuted for nobler reasons, which would characterize the injustice of their situation.

Intellectuals from the MNU, such as Lélia Gonzalez and Clóvis Moura, have shown how the criminal system and the practices of torture and murder it generates have a direct link with the slave practices of class domination. Thus, imprisonment only serves to perpetuate this class domination and racial discrimination, failing to fulfill any positive social function for blacks and workers, being falses the discourses that the prison would increase security, or would rehabilitate the prisoner for life in society, or that would bring reparation to those harmed by the crime. On the contrary, the penal system only continues to increase violence, destroy lives and strengthen crime. Today, MNU’s banner that “every prisoner is a political prisoner” remains extremely current, gaining even greater importance at this historic moment when the military regains control of the federal government in Brazil through the electoral victory of intended neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The redemocratization and mass incarceration

Mass incarceration is the policy that characterizes Brazilian democracy. The so called democratic freedoms were only accepted in our country through a reinforcement of the repressive policies on the poorest populations, markedly black, indigenous and marginalized. Since the beginning of the new republic in 1990, the number of prisoners in Brazil has jumped from 90,000 to 726,000 in 2016, numbers that continue to show a growth trend.

Numbers of prisoners in Brazil between 1990 and 2016 (thousands)

The prison became a storehouse for bodies that our ruling class considers excedent population: black, indigenous, poor, sick and mifts. The reality of prisons in Brazil nowadays is a direct continuation of the darkest practices of our history, from slavery, the business-military dictactorships, the genocides of the black and indigenous populations. The struggles against prisons have described themselves as for the efetivation of the abolition, the “prison abolition”, seeking to disassemble all the legacy from the slave system. That legacy is the State structures forged by racist, eugenic and hygienist ideologies and result in the criminalization and extermination of black and indigenous populations.

The penal system is the laboratory for violence and repression experiments of the brazilian government, it’s a space where torture is still common procedure, where the black and poor body is the main guinea pig. According to the national survey of penitentiary information (Infopen) made by the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) of the Ministry of Justice, in Brazil, 75% of prisoners have at most completed elementary school and only 1% have finished college. That indicates the low income and the poor living conditions. Black people represent at least 60% of the incarcerated population, while white people are 37,22%. This super representation of black population in relation to its real proportion (51%) in brazilian society reveals the racism of the system.

Regarding the accusations, 28% of inmates were arrested for drug dealing, 25% for robbery, 13% for theft and 10% for homicide. When looking at the female population only, the number of people arrested for drug dealing goes to 64%, robbery is 10%, theft is 9% and homicide is 6%. On top of that, among prisoners, 40% are in provisory prison. That means they haven’t even gone through the first trial and are arrested in irregular legal status. These data shows how most of the incarcerated population is responding for non-violent crimes and property crimes. It denies the myth of the violent criminality and shows the strong classist quality of prisons: places that serve to guarantee the property of a minority instead of the life of the majority that already doesn’t have their rights respected.

The brazilian prison system is also marked by the over crowd that makes the life conditions extremely unhealthy. Prisons present a high HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis transmission rate. The over crowd is also the main reason for rebellions and massacres. The deficit of vacancies is officially in 358.680 in a total of 726.000 prisoners. The study itself acknowledges the over crowd as a structural characteristic, for having officially twice as many prisoners than it should.

Through this data, we can see that the prison system mainly affects people who didn’t even have access to their fundamental rights like education, health and adequate housing. When arrested then, they are exposed to even more rights violations: they don’t have a proper judicial process and are exposed to degrading situations of torture and ill health. This situation reaffirms the classist and political character of the brazilian prisons, it shows that the goal is to reproduce a system of exploitation and maintenance of social abysses, and not the fight against violence.

Criminal mass incarceration policy: a consensus among Brazil’s political parties today

In Brazil, not only the right parties advocates for repressive policies and mass incarceration. The Brazilian left is surprised by the victory of Jair Bolsonaro and his speech of apology to repression, judicialization of politics, extermination of political enemies, torture and militarism, but they forget that the Worker’s Party (PT in portuguese) itself was an accomplice and active sponsor of the growth of these practices in Brazil.

The partisan left’s action regarding prisons is limited to the mobilization of its bases with a shallow criticism to the prison of former President Lula, without advancing for a deeper debate on our legal and prison system, mass incarceration and the genocide of poor, black, indigenous and maginalized populations. At most, the more radical sectors of the left regard the subject as secondary, leaving it to be discussed in specific groups of blacks, relatives of prisoners or lawyers.

The PT government played a leading role in pushing for mass incarceration: the two administrations of President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva (2003-2006 and 2007-2010) and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2014 and 2014-2016), intensified and perfected the penitentiary expansion policies initiated by its predecessor.

With the “scientific” legitimation of the sociology of violence produced at the University of São Paulo (USP in portuguese), the Social Democratic Party’s (PSDB in portuguese) administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-1998 and 1999-2003) more than doubled the Brazilian prison population. Following that, PT’s administrations, with the discourse of “citizen participation” in public security policies, founded the “public security pack of laws”, increasing the Brazilian prison population from approximately 232.00 people in 2002 to approximately 420.000 in 2008, reaching 607.731 in June 2014, close to the ending of Dilma Rousseff’s first term.

They deepened repressive and punitive politics, developing public policies to deepen the war on drugs, banking the Brazilian military intervention in Haiti, major internal repressive incursions with the national guard, Law and Order Assurances Operations (GLO in portuguese), the Pacifying Police Units (UPP in portuguese), the anti-terrorist law, co-optation and repression of social movements. The institutional strengthening PT itself promoted for the more retrograde sectors of the military and the judiciary was so big that now turns against itself with the arrest of former President Lula and other PT cadres.

The movie “Law and Order Assurance Operations” (Julia Murat, 2017, available at https://vimeo.com/226910664) shows the link between repressive speech to social movements, strengthening of police measures and the judicialization of politics made by Dilma Roussef against popular demonstrations from 2013 onwards, with that of the inaugural speech in defense of the order of his deputy who provoked his impeachment, Michel Temer.

Rebellions, massacres, slaughter and privatization 

This recent period is marked by repeated rebellions and massacres in the Brazilian prison system. In 1990, the Carandiru rebellion and massacre took place, where the state assassinated 111 prisoners, generating great national and international repercussions.

In the 2000s, a series of massacres in the prison system burst again, some cases were:

  • The Papuda Massacre, Brasília, in 2000, with 11 dead;
  • The mega rebellion in 29 prisons of the State of São Paulo in 2011 that left a balance of at least 16 deaths and hundreds of injured;
  • The slaughter of the prison of Porto Velho, Roraima, in 2002, that left 27 dead;
  • The slaughter of the house of custody in Benfica, Rio de Janeiro, in 2004, that was burned killing 30 people;
  • The slaughter of Pedrinhas prisons in São Luis do Maranhão in 2010 that left 18 dead;
  • The rebellions in several prisons in Fortaleza, Ceará, in 2016, that left 14 dead;
  • The rebellion of the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary in 2016 that left 10 dead;
  • The rebellion of the Ênio dos Santos Pinheiro Penitentiary, Porto Velho, in 2016 that left 8 dead;
  • The prison rebellions of Manaus in the Amazon in 2017 that left 60 dead;
  • And the most recent rebellions also in Manaus in 2019 that left 55 dead.

These last massacres in Manaus occurred in privatized prisons under the control of the company Umanizzare, social movements issued notes denouncing the inhumane situation.  According to the State Front for Desincarceration of São Paulo, both before and after the massacre:

 “The meals are being distributed only 2 times a day, the water is being made available for only 10 to 20 minutes a day, the overcrowding – reaching 60 prisoners per cell – continues, the agents’ aggressions are daily –  using pepper spray and batons. At the UPP, on June 17 and 18, the prisoners spent two whole days without food, at the Compaj some prisoners are forced to divide shavers with prisoners with HIV. The overcrowding is so that, in the units, prisoners sick with contagious diseases have no space of isolation and are in the common conviviality. “

According to the Prison Ministry, families “were in front of the units’ doors in search of news as rumors circulated of deaths and received, right there, a list of names and the information that all who were in it had died” and “visits are suspended indefinitely and the news of the wounded are obscure.”

This reality denounces the disposable treatment that the bodies, mostly of blacks and descendants of indigenous people, receive. With this extreme survival routine, prison becomes a powder keg for rebellions and massacres. The fact that massacres took place in 2017 and 2019 shows how Umanizzare hasn’t changed its policy in any way, nor has there been any pressure from the State in this regard.

The tendency to privatize prisons is growing through the whole country, inspired on the USA. In addition to worsen the prisoners living conditions and the violence, forced labour in privatized prisons creates what USA authors like Angela Davis call Prison-industrial complex, increasing the tendency to mass incarceration.

Class struggle and prisons today: as long as one is arrested, we will all be stuck!

The trivialization of prison, torture, and the summary execution of black, indigenous, poor and maginalized people is a sinister danger that has historically hovered over the entire class struggle in Brazil. A society that accepts every day that its marginalized sectors are treated like that tolerates much easier the brutal repression to any protest or insurgent movement.  As Marx put it, “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.” The struggle against racist state violence is an urgent need to be able to move forward in strengthening the class struggle as a whole.

In Brazil, the first great organized experience against the current prison system was in the 1970s with MNU. After the military-business dictatorship, during the 90’s, there was the rise of hip hop culture in Brazil, which brought rap groups telling in their songs the cruel reality of the prison, leading the critique of this reality to a wider audience for the first time.

Racionais MCs, Sabotage, SNJ, Trilha Sonora do Gueto, Facção Central and the group Comunidade Carcerária, formed by then detainees of the prison complex of Carandiru, stand out. The members of Comunidade Carcerária group participated in the production of the film “Iron Prisoner” (self-portraits) which is also an important milestone of this period in relation to the subject.

Despite this, the struggle receded during this period and only nowadays we are experiencing a new rise of organizations to face this question. Some of the organizations best known are: the Prison Ministry (Pastoral Carcerária, national), Amparar (São Paulo), Mothers of May (Mães de Maio, São Paulo), Network of Communities against Violence (Rede de Comunidades contra a Violência, Rio de Janeiro), Reaja (Bahia), Group of Friends and Relatives of People in Deprivation of Liberty (Grupo de Amigos e Familiares de Pessoas em Privação de Liberdade, Minas Gerais), the MNU itself and, more recently, the State Fronts for the Derailment (Frentes Estaduais pelo Desencarceramento) of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and several other states (it exists in the eight states in Brazil today).

In addition, there’s a strengthening of the anti-prohibitionist struggle that is directly related to the struggle against prisons, as the war on drugs is one of the great excuses for mass incarceration today, especially for women. The Marijuana Marches (Marchas da Maconha), the main symbol of the anti-prohibitionist struggle in Brazil, gather every year in São Paulo, thousands of young people from the poor areas demanding the decriminalization of drugs. In 2019, it reached almost 1 million people, according to organizers estimates. Unfortunately, even though the Marijuana March is the protest with greatest presence of black people in Brazil today, the mainstream media insists on trying to make it invisible. Marijuana Marches took place in 39 different Brazilian cities in 2019, including the main capitals of the country.

It’s also present in the struggle for disincarnation the activities of public defenders and NGOs with international funding, such as the Institute Land, Work and Citizenship (ITTC), the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences (IBCCRIM) and Conectas Human Rights (Conectas Direitos Humanos).

In the United States and some other countries we are also experiencing a moment of strengthening of the struggles against mass incarceration. It is important to exchange experiences internationally to advance this struggle.

The activity of the organizations mentioned above is extremely important and needs to be strengthened, studied and expanded. However, it is still very insufficient to face the state and accomplish more significant achievements. It will only be possible to face the State’s repressive policy and imprisonment by building a broad debate and articulating the most varied social actors.

Only with a mass movement, with solidarity among broad sectors of the working class – including those who do not feel directly threatened by prisons yet – that we can achieve a real advance in desincarceration, demilitarization, end of the practice of torture and combating this aspect of structural racism. Moving forward in the struggle against imprisonment means advancing in the self-defense of all the oppressed and the working class, and therefore taking the struggles to a new level.

By Gabriel Silva – Bank officer and militant at Quilombo Invisível.
By Heloisa Yoshioka – Militant from Quilombo Invisível, editor at Revista Amazonas, Brazilian migrant in Berlim.

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