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COVID-19 in Brazilian prisons: Pandemic or a necropolitical project?

The prison crisis can be interpreted as the continuation of Bolsonaro's campaign platform: one rooted in the belief that the State decides who lives and, above all, who dies.

Marilia Heloisa Fraga Arantes
Marilia Arantes
7 July 2020
Britta Kollenbroich/DPA/PA Images

As Brazil consolidates itself as the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, little is being said about one of its most affected populations – prisoners, or, to use human rights jargon, persons deprived of liberty.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, observers point out that the government is condemning the incarcerated population to death. Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population – 773.151 prisoners — and a system in which some facilities operate at 300% over capacity and pronounced gaps in the welfare of detainees predate the pandemic.

The current scenario in Brazilian prisons can be interpreted as the continuation of President Jair Bolsonaro's campaign platform based in necropolitics, in which the State decides who lives and, above all, who dies. In this project, some lives are deemed “disposable.” It is no small detail that that Bolsonaro’s campaign motto was: “A good criminal is a dead criminal”.

Prisons are also a harsh reflection of Brazil’s social structure. The vast majority of those incarcerated are Black and from low-income neighborhoods. This is the same demographic that is suffering the harshest consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

But within prison walls, the situation is even direr. In May alone, cases of COVID-19 in prisons increased by 800% – up to 2,200 prisoners, according to the Brazilian National Council of Justice. Yet, only 1% of the incarcerated population has been tested.

The number of deaths in Brazilian prisons this year increased by 50% compared to 2019

A more reliable picture shows that the number of deaths in Brazilian prisons this year increased by 50% compared to 2019. The available data on coronavirus in prisons reflects a scenario of underreporting and lack of information.

Moreover, the physical structure of prisons accelerates the spread of the virus: these are closed and poorly ventilated spaces. While in normal conditions one person spreads the virus to three others, in prisons, it is estimated that one confirmed infection reaches ten others.

As Bruno Shimizu, a Brazilian public defender, pointed out, “the management of the pandemic in prisons is consistent with a necropolitical project that allows people to die while failing to produce data and ignoring underreporting to make the genocide less evident”. The public policies presented by the State so far have been inefficient in protecting the prison population, a negligence that has proved deadly.

Although visits have been banned during the pandemics, people continue to be arrested and bring the virus into the prisons. Due to lack of space, the Ministry of Justice suggested that prisoners with COVID-19 be separated from others in high-occupancy cells by curtains or lines in the ground, measures that have no medical backing or proof of effectiveness in curbing contagion.

Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, the Brazilian National Council of Justice recommended that judges release prisoners in high-risk groups of severe COVID-19. However, of the city of São Paulo’s 35,000 prisoners who met the criteria for release, only 700 had their request accepted by the judge, according to the Office of the Public Defender.

While judges have the power to release prisoners, Bolsonaro took a personal stand against their release and refrains from seeking more effective measures to ensure the protection of this group. In late March, Bolsonaro stated prisoners should not be released, affirming they were “safer” inside. As absurd as this statement may sound, it is consistent with a number of Bolsonaro's previous positions.

The neglect to promote public policies to protect prisoners is not a result of the government’s unpreparedness in the face of the pandemic, but of the persistence of Bolsonaro’s necropolitical project

In 2019, when four prisoners died of asphyxiation in a police van during transfer, Bolsonaro told the press that “problems happen”. On the same occasion, he took advantage of media coverage to argue in favor of forced labor in prisons, even though the practice is unconstitutional in Brazil.

In light of these episodes, Bolsonaro's current stance regarding the risk to the lives of prisoners during the pandemic comes at no surprise. In his speeches as a congressman, as a candidate, and finally, as the president, Bolsonaro has always defended that a “good criminal is a dead criminal”. I dare argue that Bolsonaro’s position is consistent with his many statements against women’s rights, with his homophobic and racist character, and with his recent overall stance regarding COVID-19.

The neglect to promote public policies to protect prisoners is not a result of the government’s unpreparedness in the face of the pandemic, but of the persistence of Bolsonaro’s necropolitical project. The virus disproportionally affects Brazil’s poorest populations, as the rate of contagion is higher in the peripheries due to deficits in infrastructure and lack of materials, such as water and soap. Minorities are the most affected groups by the pandemic outside and inside the prison system, which replicates the structures of social inequality that cause Black and low-income people to make up the majority of the incarcerated population.

The massive spread of COVID-19 among persons deprived of liberty in Brazil is a critical issue and its effects will resonate in the country’s near and not-so-distant future. The most clear and irreparable consequence of the COVID-19 prison crisis concerns the human cost: hundreds are being sentenced to death and families are losing their loved ones. The neglect of the prison’s situation may also strengthen the punitive discourse in Brazil, helping normalize the “dead criminal” mentality and push the country further away from a justice system capable of resocialization instead of punishment.

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