BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – A prison in the state of Minas Gerais will be the country’s first public-private partnership (PPP) jail when inaugurated in January, Globo reported. The Ribeirão das Neves penitentiary, along with another PPP prison in Pernambuco under construction, have rekindled the debate about private sector involvement in Brazil’s beleaguered prison system.
The 2,500-square-meter complex near Belo Horizonte will contain three closed jails, and two that are semi-open, meaning prisoners may leave during the day to work. The complex will have a total capacity of 3,040, Globo reported.
A consortium called Gestores Prisionais Associados (GPA) will run the R$280 million Ribeirão das Neves complex. Some three hundred state employees will manage criminal enforcement services, including monitoring and moving prisoners, disciplinary sanctions and surveillance. Eight hundred GPA staff, who will not be armed, will administer everything else.
Brazil’s prison conditions are notoriously bad, suffering from occasional bouts of violence and serious overcrowding. The Justice Minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, recently caused a stir when he said he would “rather die” than spend time in jail.
“Something has to be done to improve prisons in Brazil. The system is chaotic,” said Fernanda Kellner de Oliveira Palermo, a São Paulo state lawyer and expert on prison privatization. “There are some prisons in Brazil that have disrespected the most elementary human rights for decades.”
Despite this, Brazil has experimented with innovative methods of prison management, including co-management between public and private sectors, and between the state and non-profit organizations. Four federal prisons are even experimenting with a program that will allow prisoners to shave off four days from their sentence for every book they read.
There are currently 26 prisons in six states that outsource some duties to private firms. Of the 549,577 prisoners who were incarcerated in June this year, 3.5 percent were in privately run prisons, according to the Ministry of Justice. The difference with the new PPP institutions is that private companies will build them from scratch, and will be contracted for 27 years, compared to five.
Critics of prison privatization say that profiteering has no place in an institution that provides essential care and services as sensitive as rehabilitation. Others see potential for corruption, and argue that companies managing prisons could be financially incentivized to lobby for tougher sentencing.
“How can you expect an administrator of private prisons aimed at social rehabilitation of convicts and the reduction of crime to work in this direction, when its profits drive it in the opposite direction?” said Alessandra Teixeira, chairman of the Prison System Commission at the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Science.
The Minas Gerais government is trying to minimize this risk at Ribeiro das Neves by monitoring the quality of care and penalizing GPA financially for low performance, said Ms. Palermo. “They will use indicators that will evaluate how well inmates re-socialize, the quantity and quality of the health treatment they receive,” she explained. “In case of failure, a certain amount will be discounted of the private sector payment by the government.”
Certainly, Brazil needs to find ways to accommodate more prisoners with fewer resources – between 1995 and 2009 the prison population in Brazil jumped from just over 148,000 inmates to 473,626, and there is still adeficit of more than 190,000 spaces, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Sandro Cabral, a Professor of Operations and Strategy at the Federal University of Bahia, carried out research into privatized prisons in the United States, France and Brazil, and found that in Brazil public-private agreements have resulted in lower costs and higher quality of care provided.
“I think the new PPP prisons will work well,” he said. “The private firms have an incentive to perform well and behave properly because they want further business.”