How Prisons Become Incubators, not Containers, of Crime

February 9, 2017

“Prisons [in Brazil] are actually incubators of violence – and of lots of other problems too,” declared Fiona Macaulay in a presentation at CEU’s School of Public Policy on February 2. Macaulay, who is a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Bradford, has been studying criminal justice reform and human rights since the mid-1980s. She explained that the number of prisoners has risen dramatically in Latin America in the last 30 years. During the same period, the security situation in many of these countries has deteriorated. Macaulay commented that the two trends are related.

Macaulay recounted her visit to the Carandiru prison in Brazil (“a miserable place”) where 111 prisoners were killed on October 2, 1992. Macaulay described the Carandiru massacre as “a seminal moment” in the history of Brazil. It showed, she said, that “the state did not care.” Prisoners realized that they were going to have to protect themselves – and each other. This led to the development of PCC (First Command of the Capital), which began as a prisoners’ self-protection group, and now controls “life and death in the prison system.” PCC is also the largest criminal gang in Brazil. Its main business is drug trafficking.

Although the Brazilian state denies that PCC exists, it has made efforts over the years to counter its growing influence. In the mid-1990s, for example, it transferred some PCC leaders from Carandiru to other prisons in Brazil. Instead of disrupting the group, this action allowed PCC to develop links and build networks in other prisons in Brazil. “The state gives these gangs terrain where they can consolidate power,” said Macaulay. The power of these prison gangs was especially visible during the prison rebellions in Brazil in 2001 and 2006. It was clear, according to Macaulay, that “it was the prisoners who controlled not just the prisons, but the city of São Paulo itself.” Macaulay described the prison riots that took place in January 2017, during which “the authorities stood and watched for 10 days” as 135 prisoners were killed by other prisoners, as a power struggle between rival gangs.  

It is the mismanagement of the criminal justice response in Brazil that has created the current situation in which prisons are incubators, not containers, of crime. Macaulay noted that prisons have incubated crime in many other countries – including Iraq. “ISIS, for example, came out of incarceration in Iraq.”

“Don’t think you can close the prison door on people and forget about them. Prisons are incredibly porous. They create perverse consequences,” warned Macaulay.