Penitentiary systems across the third world are often faulty for the same number of reasons. Instead of serving the purpose of inserting criminals back into society, prisons usually adopt a punitive character. In addition to being often supervised by corrupt police officers that will allow free transit of weapons, cellphones and drugs, this hostile environment is prone to the emergence of violence. Members of conflicting gangs and factions coexisting in huddled cells evinces imminent tension. Subsequently, going to prison in such conditions will generally bolster criminals’ rage against the system and drive delinquents further into a life of crime.
In Brazil, this scenario has become particularly worrisome. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, about 80% of prisoners return to crime while on parole. Moreover, by being inserted into this environment where prisoners are coerced into joining gangs in order to survive, misdemeanants often leave prison only to commit much more atrocious felonies. Therefore, it is quite clear that the current Brazilian penitentiary system is counterproductive as it further engages criminals into crime, instead of providing mental support and pointing to alternative life paths that will steer criminals away from it.
More recently, this pressing situation culminated and installed chaos and terror in prisons all across the country. It started in the city of Manaus, where one of the most colossal prison bloodsheds since the Carandiru massacre took place. Conflict between rival factions (FND and PCC) left 59 dead by the morning of January 2nd in Complexo Penitenciário Anísio Jobim. Officers at the prison could not control the rebellion, which lasted around 17 hours in total. 13 officers were held hostage, but were eventually released, as well as 70 other prisoners. Furthermore, 184 prisoners managed to escape during the riot – out of which, 65 were captured.
According to investigators, the massacre was motivated by a transfer of 17 leaders from the FDN faction to federal prisons, which most likely hindered the traffic activity within and outside of Complexo Penitenciário Anísio Jobim that was controlled by such faction leaders.
From there, terror spread across the city. On the following day, 4 more prisoners died at another rebellion at Unidade Prisional Puraquequara, which is also located in Manaus. Then, six days later, 4 more were killed at Prison of Raimundo Vidal Pessoal, Manaus, totalizing a death toll of 67.
Another instance was reported in Roraima, a neighboring state to Amazonas, where Manaus is located. 33 prisoners were killed at Penitenciária Agrícola de Monte Cristo on January 6th. In Rio Grande do Norte, another state, 26 were killed in a mutiny in Penitenciária de Alcaçuz. All bodies were carbonized or decapitated. Prisoners themselves filmed and posted their rivals’ headless bodies and decapitated heads, showcasing them as morbid trophies.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Prison massacres happen in Brazil more often than one would imagine. The massacre of Carandiru is the most notorious, with an absurd death toll of 111 prisoners, killed each with an average of 5 bullets shot by the correctional officers. No cops were killed and the surviving prisoners were forced to strip and go through a “polish corridor” AKA “run the gauntlet”, which is a corporal punishment that consists of running between two rows of people that beat up the ones who go through. Then, they were called to help pile up the bodies.
Hundreds of prisoners were murdered in similar circumstances since 1987. Thirty years later and massacres like this keep happening.
It’s about time we ask ourselves what is wrong with our penitentiary system. It’s about time we stop treating prisoners like they’re the scorn of society. It’s about time we become conscious of this reality we choose to know nothing about. We choose to remain ignorant because it’s convenient. We know it’s decaying and we close our eyes. Like letting an infection grow because we don’t want to go to the doctor. Meanwhile, prisons continue to be a place for corruption, traffic, violence and death.
“A good criminal is a dead criminal” is a lynch-mob-mentality phrase often repeated by Brazilians, who cheered at the most recents deaths of prisoners. This widespread narrow-minded, privileged vision of what a citizen should be like emphasizes the need to start seeing humanity in the most neglected segment of our society.