Doing Time in Brazil


I was a bit uncertain about discussing prison politics and policies, as it can be a rather depressing topic, but I wanted to find a way to do it. Below, you’ll find three interesting facts about Brazil’s prison system.

The 30-Year Limit

The Brazilian Constitution (article 5° XLVII, b), says that “there will be no penalties of a perpetual character” (“não haverá penas de caráter perpétuo”). That means that in Brazil, no one gets “life” in prison, nor anything resembling it. Why? Well, if someone is 25 years old and commits a crime and that crime gets them 120 years in prison, then that’s no different than getting life. If it’s long enough to be considered life then that makes it “of a perpetual character”.

The Brazilian Penal Code (article 75) says, in gist, “the maximum prison sentence can’t be longer than 30 years and, if so, the sentences should be combined and made no longer than 30 years.” The Penal Code was created in 1940 by then-President Getúlio Vargas and, at that time, the average life span of a Brazilian was about 43 years. Creating a 30-year maximum sentence was, with twisted irony (considering the Constitution), basically enprisonment for life at the time. Today, despite the actual expectancy being over 70 years of age, the original law was never updated.

Cultured Convicts

As of mid-June last year, in all four Brazilian federal prisons, selected inmates can choose to read one book per month and write a review of it in order to get 4 days shaved off their sentence. That makes the total time diminished per year to a possible 48 days. The reviews must be grammatically correct and with readable handwriting. The warden of each prison would then have a committee read the review and decide if the prisoner should get the 4 days taken off.

Available to those prisoners would be works that are either literary, classic, scientific or philisophical in nature. The idea behind the program called “Redemption through Reading” (“Remição pela Leitura”) is to have more enlightened prisoners leaving their time behind bars, well, behind them.

Brazil’s Foreign Jail

São Paulo has 152 state prisons but one of them, in particular, stands out. Over 180 miles outside of the state’s capital, in a city called Itaí, there’s the prison that gringos built…ok, so they didn’t actually spend their time making it, but they happen to do their time within it. There’s close to 1,500 foreigners inside, representing a whopping 89 nationalities.

In the last several years, the prison population has almost doubled, and it’s mainly due to the reason most of them are there in the first place. Eight out of every ten inmates got caught for trafficking drugs. Of the highest populations by nationality, the top three are Nigerians, Bolivians and Peruvians. Inside, though, one can hear anything from Hebrew to Polish being spoken. It sounds like someone should be tasked with translating the phrase “Just Say No” and then spreading the message.


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