Over 600,000 people are in prison in Brazil, according to data from the Prison Studies Centre from June 2014. This makes it the country with the 4th largest prison population in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia. With about 202 million inhabitants, 301 people are incarcerated for every 100,000 Brazilians. And with an occupancy level of about 154%, the prisons in which they are held are very overcrowded.
The country’s prison population has grown exponentially in the last two decades. In 1995, 173,104 people were incarcerated, but in June 2014, 607,731 people were held in detention centers (in the prison system and police detention facilities): an increase of more than 350%.
The past decade demonstrates that increased incarceration produces no significant measurable effect on homicides. Over the last thirteen years, the national homicide rate remained virtually constant: 28.5 per 100,000 in 2002 and 27.0 in 2013 (the most recent data available). During that period, the incarceration rate continued to soar, from 122 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to 301 in 2014. While no discernible reduction in homicides occurred, tens of thousands of families were destabilized and millions of Brazilian reais spent on incarceration.
Prisons impose enormous costs. On the imprisoned, on his or her family members who might depend on them for care and (financial) support, but also on the State. It is hard to calculate these costs exactly, but a number of studies in the United States have attempted to do so. However, it is important to note, first, that it is hard to make sound comparisons between countries because of methodological differences in the calculation of those costs, as well as because of a general absence of recent data. Moreover, the type of detention regime has an important impact on costs: logically, stricter security regimes are more expensive than lower-security settings. Lastly, richer countries have more money to spend on public institutions, including prisons, than poorer countries. This means that the monetary costs of the U.S. prison system do not necessarily reflect the situation in Latin America. However, it is fair to assume that the “collateral costs” of imprisonment are proportionately comparable.
This makes it relevant to note that in 2012, the Vera Institute calculated in The Price of Prisons that incarceration cost U.S. taxpayers about $39 billion per year—13.9% more than was reflected in the budgets of the 40 states that participated in the study. And the Pew Charitable Trusts found in 2010 that incarceration has a lasting negative economic impact on economic opportunity and mobility for inmates in the U.S., that those costs are largely borne by a person’s family and community, and that they reverberate across generations. Moreover, the Vera Institute’s The Human Toll of Jail provides an illustration of the impact of imprisonment, as well as the positive contributions that alternative sentencing can have.
Such studies are lacking in Brazil. Continue reading