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 to guarantee the security of inmates.


As of 2016, the Curado prison complex in Recife, northeast Brazil, held about 7,000 inmates in facilities built for 1,800. The outside door leads to the “cage,” a kind of lobby through which a visitor can reach administrative areas. Guards control the cage, but once you pass through the gate into the prison’s interior, you’re on your own.

Within the outer walls, the prison is divided into pavilions—fenced-in areas with multiple cellblocks. The cellblocks are unlocked; according to a prison official, overcrowding is so severe that inmates would “suffocate” if locked inside the cells, so they are free to circulate within the pavilions and to sleep in corridors and makeshift cubicles.

Guards do not go inside pavilions. The critically short-staffed prison authorities put certain detainees in charge of the pavilions and give them the keys. Many of these “keyholders” use their power within their pavilions to sell drugs and extort payments from fellow prisoners and their families. They use other inmates to make threats against and assault prisoners who don’t pay their debts or

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