In Brazil’s prisons, inequality isn’t just a condition. It’s the law.

When someone is arrested in Brazil, he or she can spend months in an overcrowded prison before getting a chance to contest the charges – unless that person has a college education. Justice systems around the globe are often accused of providing more leniency to wealthy or white people. But Brazil’s justice system doesn’t informally discriminate: It’s codified in law. Those with a university education – generally wealthier, lighter-skinned Brazilians – are guaranteed private cells isolated from the general prison population until their trial is complete. This protects them from spending pretrial detention in overcrowded, gang-controlled jails, and can sometimes mean awaiting their trial from home.

As COVID-19 ravages Brazil, these inequalities have become even more pronounced. Whereas neighboring countries are moving toward leniency – either halting new imprisonments or moving more inmates to house arrest – Brazil has taken a hard-line approach. 

Brazil’s decision to lock down its prisons highlights its disregard for those it puts behind bars, prisoner advocates say. “I’ve had mothers come to me after their sons have been locked up with the wrong name or charged with the same crime twice and say, ‘Look at the absurdity.’ But it’s not absurd. I’ve heard the same story for years,” says Flavia Pinheiro Froes, a Brazilian lawyer.

Rio de Janeiro

In late 2018, Evaldo dos Santos told his mother he was stepping out to buy bread for breakfast and would be back in a few minutes. Seven months passed before she saw him again.

Walking through the winding back streets of Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest favelas, Mr. dos Santos was caught up in a shootout between drug traffickers and police. When the smoke cleared, police alleged he was part of the gang.

He spent the next several months in Brazil’s overcrowded prison system waiting for the opportunity to prove his innocence – a story shared by hundreds of thousands of Brazilian inmates languishing in pretrial detention. “They make it so that if you are poor, you are stuck in prison. You don’t have money to pay for a good lawyer? To pay for a good defense? Well then, sorry, but you are going to be behind bars for a while,” says Mr. dos Santos, who was eventually released without charges.

Justice systems around the globe are often accused of providing more leniency to people who are wealthy or white. In the United States, for example, the majority of citizens believe the system treats Black citizens less fairly. But Brazil’s justice system doesn’t informally discriminate: It’s written into law. The criminal code dictates that those with a university education – generally wealthier, lighter-skinned Brazilians – are guaranteed private cells isolated from the general prison population until their trial is complete. This protects them from spending pretrial detention in overcrowded, gang-controlled jails, and can sometimes mean awaiting their trial from home.

Yet, more than half of Brazil’s prison population is eventually released without a conviction. A 2013 study conducted by the Open Society Foundation found that of nearly 8,000 individuals arrested that year in Rio de Janeiro, it took on average more than three months for them to be brought to trial. As COVID-19 ravages Brazil – home to the highest pandemic-related death toll behind only the United States – these inequalities have become even more pronounced in prisons known for overcrowded conditions.

In the wake of COVID-19, Brazil has instituted a near-total shutdown of the country’s state and federal prisons to outsiders – whether lawyers or family members – putting prisoners at a heightened risk of catching the virus as well as reducing their access to a legal defense. The move stands in stark contrast to neighboring nations: In Peru, the government temporarily stopped sending people to prison due to the risks presented by COVID-19. And in Argentina, there was an early push to release more prisoners to carry out their sentences under home surveillance.