Covid-19 could ignite Brazilian prisons’ powder keg

. May 10, 2020
Covid-19 is already promoting instability in prisons, says specialist Puraquequara prison riot, on May 2. Photo: Chico Batata/Div.

On May 2, a riot took place at Manaus’ Puraquequara prison. Inmates held seven guards hostage for over five hours before the rebellion was put down by law enforcement — leaving 17 injured, but no deaths. Family members of the prisoners say they were protesting precarious conditions — the police claim they were trying to dig an escape tunnel. 

Three years ago, the state witnessed one of the most gruesome massacres ever recorded in Brazil. After a 17-hour rampage, 56 inmates were killed — many of whom had been decapitated and dismembered. A judge who negotiated the end of the riot called the scenes he found “Dantesque.”

For years, prisons in Amazonas — and the Puraquequara facility, in particular — have been denounced as cesspools of human rights violations by National Mechanism for the Combat of Torture (MNPCT), an institution created as a result of the 2002 United Nations Convention signed by the Brazilian government.

A 2019 report describes an environment in which torture and other abuses are common. “While the cost per inmate [in Amazonas] is the highest in Brazil, we have come across with degraded spaces, where no human should be kept. The critical scenario of overcrowding, precarious infrastructure, insufficiency of basic products, lack of access to legal rights, and reports of torture persist,” claimed a group of inspectors.</p> <p>In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro tried to fire all MNPCT agents — a decision that was suspended by a legal injunction. The body operates under the umbrella of the Human Rights Ministry — but functions independently.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1486378"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>In an interview with&nbsp;<strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, MNPCT agent Bárbara Coloniese says that the prisoners in the Puraquequara prison demanded better meals and were dissatisfied with the isolation measures imposed on prisons by the Covid-19 crisis. “They cannot receive visitors, and their only means of contact are five-minute phone calls, with no privacy. These calls are overheard by prison officials, when they should be listened to by a psychologist or someone else from the technical team.”</p> <p>It was not the first rebellion since the pandemic arrived in Brazil. On April 22, prisoners rebelled on the Francisco de Oliveira Conde Prisonal Complex, in Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Ms. Coloniese, the rebellion was caused by a lack of water at the prison. “The prisoners know they must constantly wash their hands and clean the surfaces, to avoid Covid-19, but that is impossible without water. They are on the edge because of the disease. The reason for the riot was a lack of water, and the fear of Covid-19,” she explains.</p> <h2>The state of Brazilian prisons</h2> <p>According to December 2019 data, Brazilian prisons hold 748,009 prisoners — within a system designed for 442,349 inmates. In other words, there were 69 percent more prisoners than places in the system — making social distancing impossible and leaving the prison system as a&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">possible petri dish for the coronavirus</a>, as our reporter Brenno Grillo described.</p> <p>The spread of infectious diseases inside facilities is already rampant. A 2018 study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation shows that 10 percent of inmates in the state of Rio de Janeiro have contracted tuberculosis. Infection rates among prisoners were 35 times higher than the general population.</p> <p>Several Brazilian governors — such as São Paulo’s João Doria — have defended the privatization of prisons as a way to make the system more effective (and less costly to their budgets). However, the case of Amazonas demonstrates that privatization is no solution. Most of the state’s facilities are privately run — this hasn’t prevented inmates from being submitted to inhumane living conditions.</p> <p>In the Anísio Jobim Complex, in Manaus, one prisoner said people “have to literally be about to die in order to get medical service.” While visiting the prison, agents noted a “generalized dissemination” of scabies and intestinal infection, and the presence of other contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, syphilis, HIV-Aids, and pneumonia. According to the MNPCT report, prison units don’t usually isolate sick inmates, and it takes months before tests are scheduled and carried out. And infirmaries are ill-equipped.</p> <p>Most of the prisoners in infirmaries were found lying on mattresses on the floor, exposed to infections. Only some of them wore protective face masks.&nbsp;</p> <p>Ms. Coloniese also reveals that access to water in these prisons is unreliable. “In some cases, inmates spend days without water. They depend on the guards offering them a bottle to drink. Even infirmary patients are sometimes water-deprived.” She continues: “Prisoners with different diseases are all put together. Someone with a bellyache is put side by side with someone with tuberculosis.”</p> <p>A prison in federal capital Brasília is a textbook example of how quickly the coronavirus can disseminate among inmates and guards. After an outbreak, it took only a matter of days, cases reached almost 500. “Can you imagine what will happen in the Amazonas if the disease disseminates as much as in Brasília? It will be a death sentence for these people”, says Ms. Coloniese.</p> <h2>How Covid-19 spreads among prisoners</h2> <p>So far, only one prison, Brasília’s Papuda Complex, is testing inmates and staff for Covid-19. According to newspaper&nbsp;<em>Correio Braziliense</em>, as of May 8, 326 prisoners and 140 prison guards have tested positive for the disease. “Brazil is one of the worst-affected countries by Covid-19, and has tested very little. We are going to have people dying from it, without ever knowing it,” says Ms. Coloniese.</p> <p>According to her, lawyers and prosecutors have both stopped visiting prisons due to the contamination risks. “With no channels through which prisoners can denounce abuse, tensions grow higher.”</p> <p>Official data has the Covid-19 lethality rate within the prison system at least five times higher than among the outside population. The first coronavirus case in a Brazilian jail was confirmed on April 8. In the 23 days that followed, 239 inmates have tested positive and 13 have died, representing a lethality rate close to 5.5 percent. Meanwhile, the lethality rate amongst the general public was 0.96 percent after the first 23 days following the first confirmed infection.&nbsp;</p> <p>In March 2020, the National Justice Council recommended state judges to consider granting furloughs and placing inmates in house arrest. As of April 4, 30,000 prisoners had been released, a fraction of the system’s excess of 305,660 prisoners.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Under this chaotic scenario, these people are essentially being given the death penalty,” says Ms. Coloniese.

André Cabette Fábio

André Cabette Fábio is an award-winning journalist who has previously been published by Folha de S.Paulo, UOL, Nexo, Estadão, and Die Zeit Online. He has mainly written about human rights, inequality, macroeconomics, and violence.

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