São Paulo’s Overcrowded Prisons Stretched to the Breaking Point

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On average, São Paulo’s prisons operate with 70 percent more inmates than the system can support. Some prisons operate at triple their capacity. 

There are currently over 215,000 prisoners being housed in the state’s 160 prisons that were constructed to hold 126,000. There are also 3,808 men and women being held in police stations and jails. Altogether, there are currently 218,983 prisoners in São Paulo. 

“There’s excessive delay in analyzing what prisoners are entitled to, especially in criminal cases,” said Patrick Lemos Cacicedo, a coordinator from the São Paulo public defenders office, who specializes in prison affairs. “Thanks to that, there are more prisoners entering the system than those being released. Building more prisons won’t change the situation.”

This article originally appeared in Ponte and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Portuguese original here.

The provisional detention centers (Centros de Detenção Provisória – CDPs), originally intended to house only those awaiting trial, are the worst prisons in São Paulo state. Ten of the 41 CDPs have an occupancy rate at over 200 percent — three inmates for every one space. The São Bernardo do Campo center, in the greater São Paulo area, is the worst: although it has 844 spots, the CDP had as many as 2,749 inmates in early September (see chart below).

This overcrowding forced São Paulo to open two new “Carandiru” prisons in the northern part of the state. Carandiru was once Latin America’s largest prison, with 7,500 inmates, but the government shut it down in 2002, in part because of its violent history: in 1992, 111 inmates were killed in what is known as the Carandiru massacre. After the prison essentially imploded, then-Governor Geraldo Alckmin announced “a shift in Brazil’s penal system.”

“Let’s start a new phase, with a more appropriate model of smaller prisons,” the governor said at the time.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

One of the new “Carandiru” prisons is the Pinheiros penitentiary, located along a major highway within a district with the same name — this is one of the main thoroughfares in western São Paulo. With 2,178 spots, the four CDPs that make up the Pinheiros penitentiary currently house 6,537 inmates, over three times its capacity. 

The other new “Carandiru” is in Hortolandia, some 109 kilometers from São Paulo in Greater Campinas. Also made up of four units, Hortolandia has 5,700 inmates in a space meant for 3,435. According to the Secretaria da Administração Penitenciária or SAP, one of Hortolandia’s four units — unit 3 — has 700 spots but had no detainees until early September. Without the use of this unit, the rate of overcrowding in this new “Carandiru” is at 66 percent.

Detainees in police stations and jails

Documents on São Paulo’s penal system, obtained by this reporter, show that 3,748 men and women were being held in police stations and jails as of July 28. Of these, 1,085 have been sentenced and should no longer be in these provisional units but in actual prisons.

According to these documents, there are 4,485 spots available, but São Paulo’s police stations and jails held 3,758 inmates at the end of July, 16 percent less than full capacity. However, in the metropolitan area, there were another 1,285 inmates in makeshift jails.

In order to empty the jails and police holding cells — allowing the police to devote more time to investigating crimes, which is their main job — São Paulo would have to build four new prisons.

Prison vs daycare costs

If the government attempts to solve the problem of prison overcrowding, São Paulo would need to build 105 new penitentiaries. Each would need 847 spaces in order to house the 88,976 new inmates. But this would only work so long as the 160 prisons that already exist do not take in any new prisoners.

If we count the four prisons needed to house those inmates who have been sentenced but remain in jails and police stations, overcrowding would only truly be solved if 109 new prisons were built.

In an attempt to fix prison overcrowding, the state of São Paulo is currently building nine prisons (three for women and six for men) at a total cost of 319 million reais (about $132 million) in the hopes of creating space for 7,560 prisoners. On average, each space will cost 42,213 reais (over $17,500).


“If the prison population doesn’t stop growing, where will the state be then?”


To get a sense of what these 42,213 reais represent, compare it to the 106.8 million reais (about $44 million) that the state government spent to create 8,000 spots for kids in nursery school programs. As of March of this year, nursery school vacancies for children up to six years old cost the state 13,350 reais (about $5,562) each, according to data from the state secretary of education. In sum, building a spot for a prisoner in São Paulo costs three times as much as opening a spot for a kid in the public nursery.

In August, thanks to a decision by the state court of accounts (known as the Tribunal de Contas do Estado or TCE) the São Paolo government decided to cancel the bidding for the construction of another 12 CDPs in the state. The court rejected the calculations regarding how much the projects would cost, which the contractors said would cost 640 million reais (about $266 million) of public money.

What are prisons for?

Jacqueline Quaresemin — a UNESCO consultant on education in prisons, and a professor of market intelligence and publicity at a school for sociology and politics in São Paulo (FESPSP) — says people don’t want to talk about prisons because they have a sense of security when the prisons are full.

“Society is left with the false idea that overcrowding equals safety,” she said. “They don’t realize that ignoring such an important issue in a political campaign is something serious. It somehow legitimizes state policy — both political and legal — which condemns primarily the young, black and poor.”

For Quaresemin, who is also an historian and sociologist, the root of the prison problem is lack of youth access to primary school education, and the lack of a serious rehabilitation policy.

“Maintaining overcrowded prisons is in whose interest? Society doesn’t care,” she explained. “Someone is winning from it and understanding who is [winning] is important for the public because it is footing the bill. If the prison population doesn’t stop growing, where will the state be then? Most inmates lack a basic education. And that’s a mistake made by the state, as it creates a chain reaction. Prisoners need access to education. That’s only way to see something other than being a criminal. As things work today, prison only enhances your dark side. We need to answer the question: what are our prisons for?”


“São Paulo has no policy beyond the mass incarceration of especially the poorest sectors of the population.”


Tadeu Deyvid Livrini, the coordinator for ministers who serve in the prisons, says building new facilities won’t solve the problem.

“Overcrowding is the mother of all problems when it comes to the prison issue, but this is caused by a number of other problems,” he explained. “One is the courts, which take too long to issue sentences and also take too long to let inmates go, even when they have the right [to leave]. We need to analyze the issue of overcrowding as part of a series of problems.”

‘Mass incarceration is the only policy’

Patrick Cacicedo, a São Paulo public defender, believes the security policy of mass incarceration is one reason that problem has not been solved.

“São Paulo has no policy beyond the mass incarceration of especially the poorest sectors of the population,” Cacicedo said.

For Caicedo, those who enter and exit the São Paulo prison system are directly affected by the judiciary’s action and inaction.

“Today, in São Paulo, the judges abuse pre-trial detention. When a person is poor — even if he fulfills all the requirements that should allow him to walk — the judges set a high bail and that means the person stays behind bars. What that means is he ended up in prison due to a lack of financial resources,” he added.

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While these types of abuses send many pouring through prison doors, those expecting release are affected by the bureaucracy, which causes a major back-up of detainees.

When analyzing the issue of detainees in police stations and jails, the public defender says this is an even more degrading situation than what he sees in the prisons.

“These are like storage units filled with human beings, almost always in the back of police stations and without any infrastructure. It is degrading,” Cacicedo said.

São Paulo says they are working on it

When asked in early September about overcrowding in São Paulo’s prisons and the cost of building nine new ones, the department of corrections did not respond to any of our 16 questions on the topic.

This reporter also requested an interview with Minister of Prisons Lourival Gomes, but he did not respond.

In a statement to us, Secretary of Public Security Fernando Grella Viera said: “Since 2000, when the dismantling of jails was initiated, 236 units were deactivated in the state, including 38 dismantled during the current administration. This represents an approximate 70 percent reduction from a total of 348 establishments that previously existed. Another important fact is that today only 1.7 percent (3,808 prisoners) of the state’s total prison population (220,100) is in jails. This percentage was 42.12 percent in 1994. Closing these jails and holding cells was only possible thanks to the expansion of the state prison system under the SAP.”

*This article originally appeared in Ponte and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Portuguese original here.

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