A recent prison guard strike in northeastern Brazil sparked rioting by inmates, which in turn led to a mass jail break — a chaotic series of events that shines a spotlight on some of the systemic issues facing the country’s correctional institutions.
On Friday, May 20, the correctional workers’ union in the northeastern state of Ceará began a strike to demand better working conditions.
According to local news outlet Tribuna do Ceará, the striking guards attempted to prevent inmates’ family members from visiting their relatives on Saturday, May 21, sparking conflicts between the guards, the police and the inmates’ family members outside the prisons, and setting off riots inside several facilities.
The union called an end to the strike on Saturday evening after reaching a tentative salary agreement with the local government.
The rioting, however, continued for several more days, with prisoners calling attention to severe overcrowding and other grievances. By Tuesday, May 24, the riots had left at least 18 people dead, some of whom had been burned beyond recognition by fires started during the disturbances.
Amid the chaos, authorities decided to transfer some inmates to a facility that was still partially under construction. At least 20 of those inmates escaped, causing panic in a nearby town, where residents reported that escapees had been breaking into and robbing homes.
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The situation in Ceará is emblematic of some of the major problems facing Brazil’s penetentiary system at the national level — namely, poor management and severe overcrowding. These issues appear to have combined to create a volatile state of affairs in Ceará that led to the chaos observed over the past week.
In its most recent human rights report on Brazil, the US State Department noted that “poor working conditions and low pay for prison guards” remain a problem in many Brazilian facilities, often contributing to corruption that allows powerful gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) to operate with relative impunity inside prison walls.
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Brazil’s prisons are also extremely overcrowded. According to the London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the penitentiary system held more than 600,000 prisoners in June 2014 when it was only designed to hold about 375,000. As Human Rights Watch detailed in a report last year, this contributes to horrific conditions for inmates, who often lack access to adequate food, shelter and healthcare.
This overcrowding can also create difficulties for authorities attempting to maintain order within the prisons. Gang violence and deadly riots like those seen recently in Ceará are not uncommon in Brazil.