Brazil’s Correctional Houses of Horror

Recent Mass Killings Show the Need for Reform

Inmates are pictured on roof after an uprising broke out at Alcacuz prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil, January 2017. Josemar Goncalves / REUTERS

Historians of medieval times would recognize much in Brazil’s modern-day prisons. Detainees are often held in dark, humid, and poorly ventilated cells. Disease is rampant; prisoners are almost 30 times more likely than members of the general population to have tuberculosis. In the last three weeks, more than 130 inmates died in seven states, most in mass killings. Some had simply been gutted, while others were decapitated or fully dismembered. Brazilian prison gangs use such brutality to terrorize their enemies.

In 2015, then-Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo called the prisons “medieval dungeons.” Years earlier, he had remarked that, “from the bottom of my heart, I would rather die than be incarcerated in one of our prisons for many years.” Like Cardozo, successive Brazilian governments on both the left and the right have decried Brazil’s prison problem. But each and every one has abdicated its responsibility to provide humane detention and

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