Entrepreneurship and support for inmates as tools to combat violence

Entrepreneurship and support for inmates as tools to combat violence

By Ricardo Anderáos (Vice-president of Operations)

Prison riots, like the ones that keep happening in Manaus, should not concern us solely on the basis of humanitarian grounds. In fact, they pose a threat to the security of each one of us. Jail walls no longer separate us from criminality. Overcrowded and violent prisons amplify the degradation of those that live behind bars, which overflows into the streets in the form of organized crime. Privatizing prisons does not seem to be the solution, since the facility that served as the stage of massacres in Manaus is managed by a private company. The situation is complex and cannot be resolved with simplistic solutions. Initiatives with concrete solutions, such as the APACs (acronym in Portuguese that stands for Association for the Protection and Assistance of Detainees), and inmate cooperatives are popping up all over the country, but lack the support of state governments responsible for public security policies. 

Toughening laws and giving police impunity to shoot suspects, as the minister Sérgio Moro proposes, only worsens the situation. This is what has been practiced for decades in Brazil, from the Violent Crime Legislation of 1990 to the Drug Law of 2006. As a consequence, the country’s prison population has exploded. In 1990, the country had 90,000 inmates. Today, there are around 730,000 inmates. The result is an epidemic of violence that is taking over our streets. Brazil currently has about 60,000 homicides per year, the highest rate on the globe. According to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice of Mexico, out of the 50 most violent cities in the world, 15 are here [Brazil]. The number of people killed by the police in the country soared from 3,300 in 2015 to 6,100 in 2018, according to data from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security. 

The connection between mass incarceration and the increase of violence is proven by the fact that criminal groups are formed and nurtured inside overcrowded prisons, being able to extend their influence beyond prison walls. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) emerged out of a jail in Taubaté [a city in the countryside of the state of São Paulo], months after the massacre in Carandiru Penitentiary in 1992. The group’s objectives were to combat ill-treatment and prevent future massacres. After that, the criminal group has started supporting ex-inmates outside of prison, employing them to conduct criminal activities, since there are hardly any job opportunities to those who serve time in jail. 

Formed in 2007, the “Family of the North” (Família do Norte – FDN) criminal group, a key player in the massacres that happened in Manaus, and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) from Rio de Janeiro, created in 1989, have a similar history. The source of their power inside prisons is the support they offer to inmates, in lieu of criminal justice officials and jail staff that don’t always work to support detainees’ reintegration into society. At times, being treated as animals, inmates are increasingly responding more fiercely. And in addition to all of that, almost 40% of the 730,000 offenders in Brazil haven’t been tried yet. They are known as “prisoners on remand”.

This “unconstitutional state of affairs”, as the Federal Supreme Court well defined it, is exacerbated by drug policies, the main reason for mass incarceration, which closes a vicious cycle that makes our streets a mirror of prison violence. According to the Ministry of Justice, 33% of inmates in the country are charged for small scale drug trafficking crimes. Among the women, this number goes up to 62%. Before the 2006 drug policy, only 8.7% of inmates were drug traffickers. By not specifying the amount of drugs that defines trafficking, the law leaves the decision in the hands of the military police. White, middle class young people caught with drugs in wealthy neighborhoods are rarely arrested. Black young people from impoverished areas are always arrested, independently of the amount of drugs they possess. 

Upon arriving in jail, small-scale street dealers are compelled by other inmates to join a criminal group. Therefore, each new inmate becomes yet another soldier that society freely gives in the hands of those organizations. According to official data of the federal government, Brazil spends approximately BRL$20 billion (USD$5.10 billion) per year just to run prisons and keep inmates. This is our tax money being converted into a recruiting tool for criminal groups. However, there are successful initiatives in this catastrophic scenario. One of the oldest is the APAC methodology (the acronym in Portuguese stands for Association for the Protection and Assistance of Inmates), that creates jails with no police officers and prison guards. In those facilities, the keys of the prison cells stay with the inmates themselves, who also hold responsibility for their own reintegration. The pillars of the methodology include the direct involvement of inmates’ families and religion as supportive instruments in individuals’ journeys towards freedom. Created in 1972 in the city of São José dos Campos, São Paulo by the lawyer Mário Ottoboni, APAC has currently 50 prison facilities across five states (Minas Gerais, Maranhão, Paraná, Rondônia and Rio Grande do Norte), and they house 5,000 inmates. 

The most recent innovation in the sector was created four years ago in a women’s prison in Belém, Pará in northern Brazil, by its director Carmen Gomes. In order to compensate the inmates’ volunteer work for the production of handcrafted products, she officially registered a cooperative that has the detainees as partners. Out of the 250 women that have been part of the cooperative, none of them has been arrested again. That fact is what motivated the Humanitas360 Institute, where I work, to develop pilot projects in two penitentiaries in Tremembé, São Paulo, with the agreement of the Secretariat of Prison Administration of the state under the Alckmin government. 

In a year and half of work, H360 invested BRL$1 million (about USD$258,000) of its own resources in the project. The possibilities of innovating in the space of inclusive labor market policies ignited a dialogue with the National Justice Council (CNJ, in its acronym in Portuguese), which established a partnership with the institute to take the experience to other states. Last month, the Secretariat of Prison Administration of Maranhão and the local Justice Court made an agreement with the CNJ and H360 to expand the project to the Correctional Complex of São Luís.

In spite of that, the government of São Paulo has recently temporarily suspended the operation of the cooperatives in the prisons in Tremembé. The project goes on for now, as co-op members who have been released continue to work. The project’s main innovation is to give co-op members the prospect of having an income upon being released from prison, thus presenting a real alternative to recidivism. Alckimin’s administration did not formalize the term of partnership with the institute, and the current government is interpreting the law more strictly, dictating that companies that employ inmates need to pay each one of them the minimum wage. However, the co-op makes inmates business owners and not employees. Therefore, Doria’s government is shutting down the opportunity to innovate in one of the areas that Doria himself campaigned on. To affirm that this initiative contradicts the law, as the São Paulo government does, is to say that the Alckmin administration allowed, for more than a year, an illicit activity inside its prisons. 

What is the logic behind all of this? Well, the numbers are clear. The monthly cost of an inmate in a public jail is approximately BRL$2,000 (USD$514). At an APAC facility, the cost is less than BRL$900 (USD$231). Letting inmates be part of cooperatives to generate their own income brings about positive variables to this equation. On the other hand, the privatization of prisons is undeniably more costly to society. The prison complex Ribeirão das Neves, built and managed by the GPA consortium, costed BRL$279 million (USD$72 million) (in 2012 figures), and costs the state of Minas Gerais about BRL$3,500 (USD$900) per month to keep an inmate. According to the state of Amazonas’ Justice court, in the private prison in Manaus, the stage of the most recent massacres, each inmate costs BRL$4,700 (USD$1,208) per month.