The new coronavirus pandemic has particularly affected the most vulnerable groups in Brazil – and with the prison population it would be no different. We have seen an increase in cases of rebellions (in states such as São Paulo and Amazonas) and the recrudescence of punitive measures, such as the proposal to adopt ” containers ” to isolate the sick, the suspension of all contacts with family members and the maintenance in prison of groups that could be released for house arrest. In this scenario, we asked Mariana Chies, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV/USP), about the worrying perspectives of the prison population in the face of the pandemic and also about the recent release of the 2019 National Penitentiary Information Survey, released by the National Penitentiary Department in April. The report shows that women’s incarceration has risen again in the country, and that more than half of the women who are incarcerated today have convictions or charges related to drug trafficking. “When we look at the data on women incarcerated for drug offenses, we can’t forget that this involvement of women is tied to a broader process of feminization of poverty,” the researcher recalled. Watch – or read – the interview below.
What are the prospects for the prison population in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic?
The outlook for the prison and socio-educational population is the worst possible in the face of the SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 pandemic. That’s because even though the National Justice Council dictated the recommendation nº 62, in order for courts and judges to review and analyze in detail cases of imprisoned people, this recommendation is not mandatory. In other words, it doesn’t oblige judges and courts to do so. This will make it very difficult for people to be released, because we have a criminal policy in Brazil that is harmful for imprisoned people, very much so because we arrest people for nonviolent crimes. We have a mass of people arrested for crimes against property and for crimes related to the drug law. There is this idea in our society that deprivation of liberty is the panacea for solving all problems related to public security. But prison — as the basic penalty of contemporary societies — has not responded to the population’s desires, which always demand more punishment. It’s simple, actually. It’s a very simple math that we have to do. We already know that prison does not recover the individual, that individual considered a criminal. We have tons of research on criminal recidivism and they don’t show that if you arrest someone, they will leave jail not to commit new crimes. Second, prison does not decrease the rates of urban violence. There is no type of scientific evidence to prove that by increasing incarceration rates a decrease in urban crime rate will follow. You just have to look at Brazil. We have 750,000 imprisoned people in absolute numbers in Brazil and about 58,000 homicides a year in the country. In other words, we have a lot of people in prison and our society remains super violent. Beyond that, prison is a place where a lot of fundamental human rights are violated. Several studies that are trying to understand the prisoner’s perspective will demonstrate that prison is a space of exception, completely devoid of rights. And where are they imprisoning these people? They are imprisoning these people in hyper-crowded places. It is no longer overcrowding, it is hyper-crowding. According to the data released by the National Penitentiary Department (DEPEN) two weeks ago, we have a deficit of 312,000 vacancies. These are people who are among rats and animal feces. People who are living among insects. People like those in the Porto Alegre Public Prison, in Rio de Grande do Sul, who have tuberculosis, open wounds that are not taken care of. We are talking about places without ventilation, places that have water rationing, people without the right to take a hot bath, the complete absence of basic hygiene materials and health materials, the absence of specific technical monitoring if these people get sick. And all of what I said is nothing more than the result of a perverse criminal policy, one that has been going on in the country for a long time. Although some have not yet realized, it is important to say that prison walls are not enough to stop Covid-19. At the Papuda prison, 100 inmates tested positive for Covid-19. We also have cases in Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul and Ceará. It is a tragedy.
Why did women’s incarceration rise again in 2019, after two years in decline?
We must not forget, in the first place, that at the frontline women remain the most vulnerable in the face of police forces. This is due to the fact that women carry out retail activities in the illicit drug market, especially if we consider the safekeeping and transportation of these drugs. That is, they will be more often exposed to police approaches and abuse of police power. This increases the number of women accused of drug trafficking and therefore convicted and imprisoned afterwards.
How can we explain so much imprisonment of women with drug-related crimes?
How can we explain this over-imprisonment of women for drug trafficking crimes? This is pretty much the representation of trafficking as the main crime to impose imprisonment for women, because it is linked to the choice made by legal operators to punish small traffickers and drug users. When we look at the data of women incarcerated for drug offenses, we must not forget that this involvement of women is linked to a broader process of feminization of poverty. According to INFOPEN’s own data, 62% of imprisoned women are black and brown and 45% of them have not completed elementary school. 45% have not completed elementary school. Thus, the economic and educational vulnerability leads women to precarious jobs. If there is a greatest difficulty of insertion, be it in the formal market or in the informal market (illicit, for example), given the need to provide for their family and children, they end up entering the drug trade. And this results from a greater flexibility they encounter in this illicit drug trafficking market, because they can earn income or supplement an income obtained through legal work. And they can do both at the same time, managing to combine work with housekeeping and parenting. However, I think it is important to say that if the sexual division of labor assigns certain tasks and social places in the labor market to women, this will not be different in the illicit drug market. Thus, the vast majority of women will perform activities with low payment and greater exposure to the public security system authorities. I think it is worth mentioning again: half of these women are between 18 and 29 years old, so they are very young women; 57% of them are single; 68% of them are black and brown. So this shows the gender and social inequality that permeates the whole issue of female incarceration.