A tough-on-crime vow last year helped Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency of Brazil, a nation plagued by gangs blamed for a string of mass-murder prison riots. No country has suffered more homicides in recent years and only two nations — the United States and China — have more people behind bars.
"Our concern and our priority are good people," Bolsonaro said on Twitter while campaigning last year. "I've always said it: I prefer a prison full of criminals than a cemetery full of innocents. If space is missing, we build more!"
On Monday, a gang at the Altamira prison in northern Brazil attacked rivals within the walls and setting fire to a temporary cell block. Officials say 58 people were decapitated or asphyxiated by the fire. Four others apparently were strangled by other inmates in the aftermath as prisoners were being transferred to supposedly safer lockups.
Relatives of the victims were gathered outside the Altamira morgue for a third day on Thursday in hopes of recovering remains for burial. The forensic institute said it had released only 27 bodies. The other 31 either need DNA testing for full identification or families lacked required documentation to retrieve their bodies.
In response to the riot, state officials in Para pledged to build five new prison units to hold more than 2,000 inmates, and Gov. Helder Barbalho said over 1,000 new security agents will patrol prisons.
It's an echo of the response to previous eruptions of prison violence. "The truth is that Brazilian policymakers have long responded to the prison crisis by building more prisons, stiffening penalties," said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape think tank in Rio de Janeiro. "The paradox is that the filling of Brazilian jails is not only costly and ineffective, it is strengthening the hand of organized crime."
Reformers complain that the ill-controlled prisons essentially serve as schools for crime, forcing minor offenders into cooperation with murderous criminal cartels behind bars. Brazil already has more than 720,000 individuals behind bars, according to official data from 2017. More recent independent estimates have the current incarcerated population at over 800,000 — more than triple the number in 2000.
The country has continued to build more prisons to try to keep up with its ever-growing incarcerated population. The national prison department recently announced that about 20,000 new cell spaces would be created by the end of the year. But it already faced a shortage of 302,758 cell spaces as of July 2017.
Para state's prisons are 8,600 inmates over capacity, so the government's vow to create 2,000 spots will only dent the problem. Overcrowding has left prison guards severely outnumbered, struggling to keep control of inmates, and has repeatedly blamed as a key factor in Brazil's recurring prison riots and massacres.
Two days of clashes in the neighboring state of Amazonas in May left 55 prisoners dead in four different prisons of the state's capital, Manaus. In 2017, more than 120 prisoners died in another string of violent episodes that lasted several weeks, spreading to various states.
Bolsonaro came into office with a record of inflammatory statements. During the campaign, he suggested that "you cannot treat (criminals) as if they were normal human beings, ok?" And suggested police be given a freer hand to kill them: "If he kills 10, 15 or 20 with 10 or 30 bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted."
That hard-line message has broad appeal in a country where, according to the independent Brazilian Public Security Forum, 63,880 people were killed in 2017. But critics say prisons are being clogged by inmates arrested for small drug offenses — prisoners often recruited into far more serious crimes by prison gangs — and alternatives need to be found.
"The prison today is a deposit for the undesirable," and not just serious criminals, said anthropologist Roberto Kant Lima, a professor at the Federal Fluminense University. Nearly 30 percent of all inmates in Brazil were convicted — or are awaiting trial — on drug-related charges. Marcelo da Silveira Campos, also a researcher at the Federal Fluminense University said his studies found that at least half of those in Sao Paulo state were in prison for possessing less than 7 grams (a quarter ounce).
The leftist administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva tried to tackle the problem in 2006, passing a law that strengthened sentences for "traffickers" but including alternatives to prison for minor "drug users."
In practice, however, it didn't work. One key flaw, experts say, is that it did not mention a specific quantity of possession to differentiate drug users from traffickers, leaving it up to police officers, prosecutors and judges to decide.
"The law ended up being discretional, not objective," Campos said, adding that too often users are prosecuted as traffickers. This year, Congress passed a bill designed to further toughen penalties for traffickers and require users to undergo rehabilitation at private or religious centers. But that legislation again fails to specify the difference between trafficker and user.