A so-called voluntary work program in Rio de Janeiro prisons has highlighted long-term problems within Brazil's crumbling penitentiary system, a breeding ground for some of the most powerful crime groups in Latin America.
Rio de Janeiro’s state authorities issued, in July, a new category of “volunteer labor” for prisoners.
Under the emergency resolution, prisoners could volunteer to clean, cook, or carry out maintenance work in return for slightly reduced sentences. In late February, the measure was extended for another 180 days, Reuters reported.
Judge Rafael Estrela, who authorized the resolution, told Reuters that he did so because prison authorities insisted they had no funds to pay wages for basic maintenance tasks.
“Everything would stop ... trash would go uncollected, food would not be delivered, various repairs in the electrical and hydraulic grid would stop being made.” He said “it would be complete chaos.”
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Experts say the resolution goes against federal and state laws, which require inmates to be paid for their work. It also goes against United Nations guidelines on the treatment of prisoners.
Brazil’s prison population has spiked in the past three decades and now stands at nearly 720,000 people, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.
Rio de Janeiro’s 56 prisons house about 53,000 inmates, more than double the amount that the facilities were meant to hold.
InSight Crime Analysis
Decrepit cells, chronic underfunding, severe overcrowding and violence have al all provided the conditions for prisons to become incubators of organized crime across Latin America, and Brazil's penitentiary system has spawned its most powerful criminal groups.
Both the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), two of the most powerful criminal organizations in Latin America, were born and gained strength inside the walls of Brazil’s prisons.
As InSight Crime reported in a special investigation, both gangs started as organizations seeking to improve conditions amid rampant abuse and killings. But the gangs soon morphed into powerful criminal networks, which now control marginal neighborhoods across Brazil and run a broad range of criminal activities, including drug trafficking. The prison gangs have also expanded into neighboring countries.
Brazil is not alone in seeing its jails reinforce organized crime structures.
In Mexico, for example, criminal groups like the Zetas expanded their influence and power within the jails. In El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs coordinate their operations, including political interference, from within prisons.
Brazil’s far-right President Jail Bolsonaro has promised to tackle the massive prison gangs, which have spurred Brazil’s record murder rates.
The plan, which top security officials detailed to Reuters, aims to isolate gang bosses and increase surveillance. It also calls for building more jails and deploying federal security forces in prisons.
So far, authorities in Brazil have failed to rein in the prison gangs, which now wield vast power from behind jailhouse walls.
“The solution to public security in Brazil depends on lots of things, and one of those is the prison system,” Fabiano Bordignon, Bolsonaro’s appointment as head of the National Penitentiary Department, told Reuters.