SÃO PAULO – A prison ministry program run by the Brazilian bishops has joined a national camapign to oppose efforts by the administration of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to provide incentives for the privatization of prisons in the Latin American nation.

The bishops’ conference’s Prison Pastoral Ministry signed a letter along with 86 other associations and groups that work against mass incarceration in the South American country.

Earlier this year, the government approved a program to offer tax exemptions and credit lines to favor the direct participation of private companies in building and managing penal facilities in partnership with the states.

The activists argue that private prisons are more expensive than the government-run ones, that the inmates’ rights tend to be more violated in private units, and that the privatization process can lead to higher rates of incarceration.

“The contracts signed with the private sector seem to favor mass incarceration, with the inclusion of contractual clauses that require minimum occupation rates for prison units, combined with the remuneration of the companies for each incarcerated person,” the document said, adding that the measure would increase the “submission of Black bodies to forced labor” and lead to an even worse degradation of the penal facilities.

Released on September 18, the document manifests the signatories’ belief that privatizing prisons is something unconstitutional in Brazil. Private prisons also have higher costs. While the state spends an average of $357 with each inmate every month, they assert, in private prisons the cost can reach almost $800.

It also presents the example of the United States, where the control of numerous prisons was transferred to the private sector since the 1980s and the negative consequences of such a process have been documented by a number of inquiries, leading to recent revisions of the program by the federal government.

“It is fundamental to remember that Brazil since 2017 has the world’s third largest prison population, only behind the United States and China, which unlike Brazil have been progressively reducing their imprisonment rates,” the letter read.

The signatories emphasize that Blacks make up the majority of the Brazilian prison population, with 67.5 percent of the total number of inmates, while only 56 percent of Brazilians are Black. Such racial disparities would only be intensified with privatization, they argued.

At the moment, more than 30 prisons are controlled by private companies in Brazil. The Prison Pastoral Ministry and other groups have repeatedly denounced that it is much more difficult for them to get into private facilities in order to perform their activities with the prisoners.

The companies in charge also make it difficult for prisoners’ rights advocates to get information on the human rights situation inside. Reports of violence, lack of food and water, poor hygiene, and torture in those facilities abound. The letter mentions cases of riots that resulted in dozens of deaths in private prisons over the past few years.

“We were surprised that the federal government is incentivizing privatization. We did not expect that from the current administration,” German-born Sister Petra Pfaller, who heads the Prison Pastoral Ministry, told Crux.

Between 2019-2022, during former President Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure, the government promoted several measures in the penal system that were criticized by the ministry, such as the creation of a military-like security force that increased violence against inmates. With the election of left-winger Lula, the group hoped for measures to enhance the respect of human rights inside prisons.

“Some prisons were not entirely privatized, but food and healthcare services are provided by companies. It is a big business, it is expensive for the state, and quality is terrible,” Pfaller said.

She described how difficult it is to visit private prisons, where pastoral agents in general are forbidden to provide spiritual assistance to inmates and to help them navigate the legal processes in which they are entangled. In Brazil, she added, many inmates have been illegally detained or are already eligible to be released but remain imprisoned due to the lack of legal counseling.

“The problems of mass incarceration and human rights violations continue and are not being solved by any government. For us, it is not important if it is the right-wing or the left-wing that is failing to deal with them,” she argued.

For João Buch, a judge in Santa Catarina state and a member of the Judges for Democracy Association – which also signed the letter – it is curious that the Brazilian government is adopting “a neoliberal U.S. point of view, after both former President Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden took measures to revert the privatization of prisons.”

“Large economic grupos exploit the Latino and Black workforce in U.S. prisons. Companies want to do the same in Brazil,” he told Crux.

Buch said that the U.S. experience with private prisons showed that “sentences grew, while the state continued to spend too much with prisoners and violence did not go down.”

A public investment bank is involved in the privatization program in Brazil, something that was defined by Buch as “surprising.”

“With private prisons, the state loses control over the process of deprivation of freedom. It never knows for sure what is happening inside the facilities,” he said.