The Economist, 1/17/2014
FLIP-FLOPPED feet saunter across a wet concrete floor. With each step, the water reddens until the camera comes to rest on the bodies of three prisoners. Severed heads lie on top of two of the corpses. The video was filmed in Pedrinhas, the biggest prison complex in the northern state of Maranhão, and published on January 7th by Folha de São Paulo, a newspaper. The footage has woken up many Brazilians to the hellishness of their prisons.
At least 218 inmates have been murdered since January 2013 in 24 of Brazil’s 27 states. (The other three do not disclose figures.) Dozens more have died in suspicious circumstances. Severe overcrowding is the root of the problem. In the past 20 years Brazil’s population has grown by 30%, while that of its prisons and police cells has almost quintupled, to 550,000—the fourth-highest in the world, behind the United States, China and Russia.
Officially, Brazilian penitentiaries have room for around 300,000 people. There is federal money to spend on building extra prisons, which are largely run by the states. But it can flow only once a project is approved by a local town. They are reluctant hosts, fearing that penitentiaries both bring crime when prisoners are released and also divert resources from other public works. “Everyone wants hospitals and schools,” says Antonio Ferreira Pinto, a former security secretary in São Paulo state. “No one wants a prison.” Federal-prison spending fell in 2012.