Patrick Bruha

Patrick Bruha

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Prison System In Brazil

Patrick Bruha

Patrick Bruha

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Brazil has one of the most crowded prison systems in the world. In this article, we will take a closer look at the Brazilian prison system.


The Brazilian prison system is a public service and therefore, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice in Brazil, but it is managed by the Departamento Penitenciário Nacional, which is Portuguese for National Penitentiary Department.

As of the end of 2013, the Brazilian prison population was the fourth largest in the world, with a population of 581.00 people - 557.000 in prisons and 24.000 in police facilities - trailing behind only Russia, China and the United States. The Brazilian prison population had increased by 508% between 1990 to 2013. Of these, 6,1% are women and 0,6% are foreigners. It is worth stating that out of the total number of prisoners, 38,3% were sent to prison before being properly judged.

The prison system in Brazil is composed of 1.598 facilities, all of which are extremely overcrowded. The official capacity of the prison system is 348.000 - 341.000 in prisons and 7.000 in police facilities - but with a total population of 581.000, the occupancy level is at 163% as of December 2013.

As if this was not already a big concern for the government, the prospects of solving this problem are quite negative, as Brazil presents a high rate of criminal recidivism, with 70% of all released inmates re-offending.

There are three different imprisonment regimes in terms of deprivation of liberty:

  • Fechado, which is Portuguese for Closed, in which the jail time is enforced in a penitentiary, in a prison cell. The inmate is subject to daily hours of work and sun and is at all times subject to supervision
  • Semiaberto, which is Portuguese for Semi-open, in which the inmate is given a little more liberty. The inmate may be granted temporary leave and is subject to minimum control inside the imprisonment facility
  • Aberto, which is Portuguese for Open, in which the inmate’s detention occurs only at night, during weekends and holidays. In this regime, the inmate is allowed to work and/or study outside the imprisonment facility

Recent private investments

Due to the flagrant failure of the Brazilian government in handling the prison system, especially in regards to its capacity, the government opened the prison system to private investments. Through a process of public bidding that was won by a consortium of five companies in 2009, the first public-private partnership of the Brazilian prison system started housing inmates in January 2013.

The investment from the private companies was BRL 280 million and the penitentiary, located in Ribeirão das Neves in the state of Minas Gerais, can house up to 608 inmates. In exchange for this, the government will pay the companies managing the penitentiary BRL 2.700 per month for each inmate for the next 27 years. After this period, the penitentiary will again be managed by the government.

Different types of imprisonment facilities

The vast majority of imprisonment facilities in Brazil are managed by states, but there are four facilities of maximum security managed by the Federal Government and a fifth one that is still being planned. These are designed to house highly dangerous criminals who are convicted of involvement with organized crime.

The following imprisonment facilities are the maximum security penitentiaries managed by the Federal Government:

  • Federal Penitentiary of Catanduvas, in the state of Paraná, inaugurated in 2006
  • Federal Penitentiary of Campo Grande, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, inaugurated in 2006
  • Federal Penitentiary of Porto Velho, in the state of Rondônia, inaugurated in 2009
  • Federal Penitentiary of Mossoró, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, inaugurated in 2009
  • Federal Penitentiary of Brasília, in the Federal District, still in the planning process

Other imprisonment facilities include:

  • Penitenciárias, Portuguese for Penitentiaries - for criminals sentenced to imprisonment in a closed regime
  • Colônias Agrícolas e industriais, Portuguese for Agricultural and Industrial Colonies - for criminals sentenced to a semi-open regime
  • Cadeias Públicas, Portuguese for Public Prisons - for inmates arrested in preventive custody
  • Hospitais de Custódia e Tratamento Psiquiátrico, Portuguese for Custody Hospitals for Psychiatric Treatment - for criminals with mental illness or with incomplete or delayed mental development
  • Casas do Albergado, Portuguese for Sheltered houses - for inmates sentenced to an open regime

Benefits by the government

The high rate of crime recidivism exposes a deficiency in Brazilian society in reinserting prisoners, revealing that the mechanisms of social inclusion for those who have left jail and are willing to start a new life are insufficient. With this in mind, the government set up a series of benefits that should aid the social reinsertion of prisoners and former prisoners.


The first set of incentives that can be outlined are the Lei de Execução Penal, which is Portuguese for Crime Enforcement Law. Started in July 1984, it establishes the following resolutions about work for prisoners under closed and semi-open conditions:

  • The employment of prisoners is not subject to the regulations of Consolidação das Leis do Trabalho (CLT), Portuguese for Consolidation of Labor Laws. Because of this, it is up to 50% cheaper to employ a prisoner when compared to an employee that receives minimum wage
  • It is the responsibility of the employer to pay the prisoner’s wage, as well as food and transportation costs. However, the employer is exempt from complying with labor benefits such as paid holidays, 13th salary and other similar benefits
  • The minimum wage for prisoners can be up to 25% less than the value of the national minimum wage
  • Prisoners are considered as optional taxpayers of the Brazilian Social Security, the INSS

Temporary leave

According to the Lei de Execução Penal, an inmate subject to a semi-open regime can ask for temporary leave from prison. Despite it being commonly granted only for major holidays like Easter, Children’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, this benefit is not only restricted to these holidays. The Lei de Execução Penal allows inmates of the semi-open regime to request temporary leave of up to seven days at any time of the year and can be renewed for an additional 4 times during the same year, provided that there is a minimum of 45 days between each granted temporary leave.

The only restrictions that apply are as follows:

  • The inmate must inform the judge the address where they will reside
  • The inmate must return at night to the informed address
  • The inmate is forbidden to attend bars, nightclubs and other similar facilities

The inmate is also allowed temporary leave whenever they are attending educational or professional courses. In these cases, the granted leave should be necessary to fulfill all student activities.

In 2012, 47.537 inmates were granted temporary leave for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Of these, 2.416 did not return to the imprisonment facilities they were housed in, roughly 5,1% of the total.