by Kátia Sento Sé Mello

Translated by Anna Bennech  Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Originally published in Portuguese May 20, 2020 link

The impact of the pandemic on the Brazilian prison system is vast and reveals the lack of homogeneity in the system, considering the way it deals with the management of prison units. We bring attention to the unconstitutionality of how state secretariats and the federal government deal with the management of the lives of people deprived of freedom, mostly poor and black. The scarcity of information about people affected by the virus, both those deprived of liberty and public employees responsible for their care, and the carelessness on treating the relatives of prisoners reflect the lack of ethics aimed at valuing people. Most families cannot obtain information about the state of health of their relatives or whether they have been affected by the virus-related illness.
I published an article1 on the prison situation in Brazil today on the UFRJ News Portal. We have the third-largest prison population in the world2 in unhealthy conditions, overcrowding, inadequate water supply, precarious diet, shortage of health personnel, and presence of diseases, such as tuberculosis, measles, syphilis, HIV, meningitis, potentiate the contamination by COVID-19, which assumes characteristics of a massacre3,4.
People in prison already have their lives marked by the absence of social policies and are subjected to ill-treatment that exceeds the applicable penalties. They seem to be left there to die.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office and of the Public Defender’s Office of the State of Rio de Janeiro have demanded the replacement of deprivation of liberty by compliance with a home regime for the population at risk – the elderly, hypertensive, diabetics, those with chronic diseases, pregnant women, or nursing mothers. The Federal Supreme Court, since 2016, established the Binding Precedent No. 56, which determines criteria for the anticipation of criminal progression from the closed regime to the semi-open. Despite this, the same Supreme Court rapporteur, faced with the coronavirus pandemic, did not consider the alternatives he had defended.
The pandemic highlights our slave tradition. Moreover, it makes explicit the vulnerability of population segments and the political dispute between the different spheres of power over who has more right to say which protection measure should be adopted. Our legal structure traditionally does not ensure the equal application of rights to all citizens5.
Many rights are violated during the journey of prisoners in the prison system. Women in the situation of maternity6 have their requests for conversion from pre-trial detention to domiciliary detention denied, violating Article 318 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Based on moral values, the magistrates’ justifications ignore that some acts considered as crimes do not imply violence – and these women are thrown into jails for moral reasons, which focus on the expectations of the female role in our society. Still, in the 21st century, women are disqualified and punished when their behavior escapes the pattern of what is feminine.
Are there possible legal measures that could be taken to view the coronavirus’s impact on the prison population? At this time of emergency, it is essential to follow the procedures of the World Health Organization, Ministry of Health, and state health authorities and governments: apply the legal provisions that lead to the de-imprisonment of vulnerable people. In the long run, all prison policy in Brazil and the world needs to be rethought, including the very notion of crime. We need to build a project of society that includes public policies at all levels of human life. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the urgent need for these policies and rethinking our project of civilization.

Kátia Sento Sé Mello is a professor in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Work and the Graduate Program in Social Work at UFRJ. She leaders the Urban Sociabilities, Public Space, and Conflict Mediation Research Group (GPSEM/CNPq). Researcher associated with the Nucleus Urban Culture, Sociability and Social Identities (Nusis/ESS), Nucleus of Studies on Citizenship, Conflict, and Urban Violence (Necvu/Ifcs) of UFRJ and INCT-Instituto Nacional de Estudos Comparados em Administração Institucional de Conflitos/UFF. Ph.D. in Anthropology from Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF).

1 “Brazilian Prison System in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, 31/03/2020.

Available at:

2 About 750,000 people, of whom about 250,000 have some disease. Of the total number of people arrested, about 62% are black and brown.

3 Mallart, Godoi, Campello, and Araujo say that in prisons, death from diseases takes the form of a massacre. In 2017, only in the state of São Paulo, which is home to one-third of Brazil’s imprisoned population, among the 532 deaths computed by the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration (SAP), 484 were classified as “natural deaths.” In Rio de Janeiro, the highest mortality rate in Brazil – five times the national average – of 521 deaths between 2016 and 2017, 83% resulted from diseases that evolved to death in contexts of lack of medical assistance, in which, besides late diagnosis, people are not adequately treated (Bulletin ANPOCS, no. 24, 04/2020).

4 Based on the Integrated System of Prisons Information (Infopen), the Network of Security Observatories points out that the proportion of prisoners above the available vacancies varies. Ceará and Pernambuco seem to lead the overcrowding. Ceará has 173% more, Pernambuco, 172%. Rio de Janeiro is with 70% of prisoners above the available vacancies. Still, according to these data, the Network calls attention to the availability of cells for the observation of people deprived of freedom who are sick. In Rio de Janeiro, there are 12 cells for 50 units; Bahia has for 25; Ceará has 15 for 36; Pernambuco has 16 for 76, and São Paulo has 140 for 173 units. On the one hand, there is the orientation of protocols to be followed by institutions and populations to avoid agglomerations and personal contact, sanitize hands, and surfaces to which people have access. On the other hand, the paradoxical conditions of prisons favor the just opposite.

5 Up to now, three federal laws and 42 orders of the Ministry of Health have been edited to instrumentalize legal action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic –

6 Pregnant women and/or mothers of children up to 12 years old.