Prisoners, family, and the pandemic in Brazil

By Renan Araújo

November 9, 2020

The consequences of punishment go far beyond an individual in custody. On a macro level, when considering a criminal justice system’s disproportionate targeting of minorities, its effects are influential enough to define the livelihoods of entire ethnic groups. For example, in the United States, African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times that rate in five states, despite being only 12.7% of the total population. In many ways, this overtargeting influences the routine of residents in low-income neighbourhoods by putting young black men constantly on the run – under the omnipresent shadow of imminent imprisonment or even reimprisonment (sometimes described as the ‘revolving prison door’ phenomenon). This instability undermines already tenuous social relations, such as work, family, and friendship ties. With criminal justice affecting entire communities substantially, its effects on the close circles, such as family and friends, of imprisoned individuals are even more appalling. In this blog, I describe how the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the suffering of inmates’ families using the case of Brazil, unveiling an already flimsy cloak of legality and morality in the treatment of minorities by the Brazilian criminal justice system.

To introduce the Brazilian criminal justice system, let us briefly turn to some descriptive data about its prison system. As of 2020, there are more than 702,000 people imprisoned in Brazil, making it the third largest prison population in the world. Relative to the total population of the country, there are more than 331 prisoners per 100,000 Brazilians. Of these, more than 209,000 prisoners are still waiting for their sentences, i.e. nearly 1 in every 3 inmates. The latest data available about race and ethnicity in the Brazilian prison system, which dates back to 2016, shows that 64% of prisoners are Black or Brown, while Blacks and Browns are only 53% of the general population.

Beyond prison statistics, Blacks in Brazil are also tormented by the criminal justice system on the streets through police repression. Surveillance and repressive interventions are concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods mostly populated by Blacks, while community policing strategies tend to be located in wealthier areas. Research has also shown that the Brazilian police tends to use force more in low-income areas and that residents of these neighbourhoods are more fearful of the police. In sum, the consequences of punishment extend well beyond the infliction of a prison sentence.

The relatives of inmates have their lives substantially defined by prison rules in any jurisdiction, suffering the collateral effects of punishment to different degrees. These relatives set their work and personal schedules according to visit days; they prepare in advance, to take everything that their loved ones might need; they become anxious due to the uncertainty of the ever-changing, complex bureaucracies of jails; and, they frequently have to endure long back-and-forth trips to meet their loved ones. In Brazil, in addition to these already challenging circumstances, human rights violations are common. One of the most outrageous practices is the revista vexatória (literally, “vexing body search”), through which prison officers strip-search female visitors. In some prisons, not uncommonly, women have to squat on a mirror repeatedly or have their body cavities manually searched. Despite reproval and condemnations even from members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, many Brazilian states still allow these practices. This illustrates how the consequences of custodial punishment can be so pervasive as to violate innocent people physically and intimately. The stigma of crime thus extends beyond the prisoner and dehumanises their loved ones as well.

Illustration of a vexing body search, a typical practice in many states in Brazil. Source: Alexandre de Maio, A Pública

With COVID-19, the Brazilian prison system faced new challenges that contributed to the deterioration of conditions for prisoners and their families. If visits were already problematic under normal circumstances, their suspension after the pandemic (in São Paulo, since March 20) made the situation even worse. First, no alternatives to providing families with information about their imprisoned relatives were implemented to a meaningful extent. In São Paulo, where a third of the Brazilian prison population is located, almost 70% of prisoners’ family members interviewed by researchers from Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) had not received any information about their imprisoned relatives by July (in almost four months of the public health crisis). The uncertainty of the situation contributes to the prevalence of  several psychological symptoms such as anxiety, angst, and fear: 42% of the respondents said they feared their imprisoned relatives were going to contract the virus. Considering that inmates are naturally more vulnerable to respiratory diseases due to the abysmal conditions of prisons, this heightened concern is reasonable. Researchers found that prisoners in Rio de Janeiro are nine times more likely to suffer from tuberculosis than the average individual. Indeed, 42% of interviewees said their imprisoned relatives were already suffering from some respiratory condition.

Besides increased psychological suffering, families have also experienced material hardship. More than 96% of the interviewees said that they had not received any support from the state government of São Paulo, and 34% answered that they did not have enough money to feed themselves. The economic crisis that ensued due to the pandemic affected the low-income tier of the population drastically, including most of the family members of prisoners. In FGV’s sample, their average monthly income was R$ 1.097.32 (roughly £152), with an average of R$ 371.13 per capita in the family (~£51). If not for the emergency support provided by the federal government (R$ 600 for individuals or R$ 1.200 for single mothers, roughly £80 and £160, respectively) many of these families would have lost their income entirely. And even with such assistance, 79% of the respondents said their income had decreased during the pandemic.

In such a catastrophic scenario, it is worrying to see that the representatives of the Brazilian prison system often set their priorities backwards. The main proposal of the Ministry of Justice at the beginning of the crisis was to isolate potentially infected prisoners in improvised containers, an inhumane idea that was fortunately barred by the National Council of Criminal and Prison Policy. At the height of the crisis, social media accounts of state departments of justice prioritised images of inmates working in different activities, such as digging graves in Pernambuco, instead of sharing their plans about protection measures and virtual visits with families. There was a reason for that: there was no meaningful plan to be shared, as family members were left in limbo.

Inmates dig graves with a protective outfit. Source: social media of the Department of Justice and Human Rights of the state of Pernambuco

Despite some positive measures finally being implemented in some states in the last couple of months, such as virtual visits in Pernambuco and virtual letters in São Paulo, there are still profound problems yet to be tackled. In the state of Alagoas, prison units prohibited families from taking food to their imprisoned relatives, leading to demonstrations in the state’s capital city in August. In the state of Minas Gerais, inmates rioted in September, leading to acts of violence and torture between rival gangs amidst the chaos, due to the absence of protocols to resume private visits with their partners, which are currently limited to 20 minutes. In other states, visits are still completely suspended, and communication is restricted to emails or letters with short limits of three lines or 2,000 characters. The lack of proposed solutions to these issues led 400 family members of imprisoned people to travel by bus from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to Brasília to protest. Two thousand demonstrators also took to the streets in São Paulo in early September, demanding more organised virtual visits and a better system for them to keep delivering goods to their imprisoned relatives, as many essential products are not given by the state to prisoners. Throughout the country, protesters exhibited banners such as “imprisoned lives matter”, “gradual return to physical visits”, and “being family is not a crime”.

Inmate talks to his family over a tablet with a prison officer by his side. Source: social media of the Department of Justice and Human Rights of the state of Pernambuco
Demonstrators in Florianópolis exhibit banner “being family is not a crime”. Source: Folha da Cidade, 29 June 2020

The (mis)handling of this crisis by the Brazilian prison system exposes the normative grounding on which criminal justice is based in the country. In a system where precarious prison conditions are deemed as an extra-official part of punishment, reform is nearly inconceivable. The stigma and dehumanisation imposed upon prisoners are extended to their relatives, who have to beg not to be treated as “criminals”. In the context of COVID-19, temporary adaptations that contribute to solving one of the many problems, as it has been the case of virtual visits, are so exceptional that they become permanent all-in-one solutions. Clearly, this cannot work. The pandemic could have given life to previously inviable criminal justice reforms, such as reducing the prison population and improving health conditions in prisons – but, in Brazil, the experience of the families of prisoners shows that a system normatively grounded on brutality is unlikely to produce positive outcomes.

Renan Araújo is a Research Fellow at the Legal Priorities Project. He has an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy from the London School of Economics and a Law degree from the Federal University of Pernambuco (Brazil). Contact:

Latest posts

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.