For the end of prisons

Giovanni Battista Piranesi's (1720–1778), The Prisons of the Imagination, 1761.


Considerations based on the recently released book by Alípio DeSouza Filho

The statistics are not entirely accurate – which, in fact, is in itself an indication of the size of this mess. Roughly speaking, statistics indicate that there are around 840 people serving sentences in Brazil – in a closed, semi-open or open regime.

Only the USA (with its 1,23 million people in prison) surpasses us in this cruel ranking – which, in fact, says a lot about the level of repression and violence there and here. Some surveys report that there are around 1,7 million prisoners in China. But it is necessary to consider the anti-communist propaganda bias in compiling and disseminating such statistics.

However, the North American trend is towards a reduction in the total number of prisoners – unlike Brazil, which has significantly increased the prison population. In the last decade, the total number of people incarcerated in the USA fell by 22%, while here the number grew by 44%!

According to the National Secretariat for Penal Policies (SENAPPEN): “the total number of people in custody in Brazil is 644.794 in physical cells and 190.080 under house arrest as of June 2023”. About 70% are black and brown – a more than eloquent manifestation of our structural racism.

The engine of the system is the infamous drug law: “as the Brazilian population is made up of 57% black people (black and brown), among the defendants prosecuted for drug trafficking, 68% are black; With regard to white color/race, it represents 42% of the population, and only 31% of defendants are prosecuted for crimes involving drugs”.

But why is such an important issue, which affects the lives of thousands of people, almost ignored by progressive sectors, social movements, left-wing parties, the PT and the Lula government? Or worse, why does such an agenda appear among us almost always in the same key wielded by reactionaries, by the extreme right? An indigestible cocktail of common sense, penal populism and punitivism.

The supposed mitigating factor that generally appears is that the left has little experience in this area – which does not stand up to comparison with the facts. In academia, in social movements, in some governments and also in our parties, there is a large accumulation related to the urgency of structural reforms in public security policies, in the police, in prisons and so on. Unfortunately, the field of human rights, scientific rationality, black, youth, feminist, popular movements, etc. are gracefully ignored due to an uncritical adherence to conservative clichés and pseudo-consensus.

The state governments of Bahia – a state that the PT has run uninterruptedly for almost two decades – are, sadly, a kind of paradigm of what not to do. To contrast: even the PSDB in São Paulo (from Covas to Doria) made much more progress than the PT administrations in Bahia in this area.

A world without prisons?

Having now established the prolegomena, let's get to the grain. Professor Alípio DeSouza Filho, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, brings to light a libretto-manifesto – as courageous as it is forceful.

Without the usual salamaleques and mediations, Alípio DeSouza Filho already provokes in the title of the work: For the end of prisons: manifesto for the end of prison sentences.

From Foucault to Agamben, in a quick flight that goes from Nietzsche, Sartre, Honneth to Chauí, the author denounces the recent global rise in incarceration. And he draws attention to a fact that is rarely seen: worldwide, the male prison population increased by 22% while the percentage of female prisoners grew by 60%!

We quadrupled our numbers in two decades. There are currently around 40 thousand women imprisoned, the vast majority for “trafficking”. In other words, it is obvious that the current “war on drugs” policy is not only anti-poor and anti-black, it is also completely and particularly harmful to working women.

“Prisons are, without a doubt, one of the most disastrous institutions ever invented by human beings.” Alípio DeSouza Filho has the courage to say what should be said, without flourishes. It is therefore necessary to change the entire “public security” policy, “prison policy” and “drug policy”, among others. Today they are machines for killing and arresting young people, workers, black, brown, poor and peripheral women.

I confess, I missed a hint of structural analysis that emphasized the class-race-gender-territory intersectionalities, in addition to the global situation and the current Brazilian political context.

By the way, the national rate is 300 prisoners per 100 thousand inhabitants. In England it is half (144). In Sweden there are 51. Is it by chance, perhaps, who knows, speculating a lot, that there could supposedly be some relationship between such levels of incarceration and social inequality here and there?

However, it is always necessary to salute what is good, beautiful and fair. “In these strange days” in which “dust is often hiding in the corners” – and with the “bitch of fascism” always lurking – Alípio DeSouza Filho’s cry is a breath of boldness and common sense.

Prison for who really, pale face?

* Julian Rodrigues, journalist and professor, activist in the LGBTI movement and Human Rights, master in human and social sciences (UFABC) and doctoral student in Latin America (Prolam/USP).


Alípio DeSouza Filho. For the end of prisons: manifest for the end of prison sentences. Papyrus Caule Publisher. []

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