Brazil's prisons stand at 157% of capacity

Brazil's Supreme Court has ruled the state must compensate prisoners held in overcrowded conditions, in a decision that could lead to an avalanche of legal claims but is unlikely to help address the underlying causes of the country's prison crisis.

The ruling came as the result of a legal claim made by an ex-prisoner, who sued the state for compensation after spending his sentence in an overcrowded facility.

The nine judges all agreed that the state was responsible for damage to the claimant's dignity as it had failed to provide minimum levels of infrastructure, sanitary conditions and healthcare, reported Globo.

However, the court was split on the issue of financial compensation. Those in favor awarded the prisoner 2,000 reales -- approximately $645 -- in damages.

The judges who voted against the claim argued that financial compensation was an impractical solution as it could lead to a huge financial burden on the state due to the number of potential cases. Instead, they said, the court should explore alternatives such as reducing sentences, according to Globo.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is little doubt over the validity of the Brazilian prisoner's claim, as the treatment of inmates in Brazil's penitentiary system clearly violates their rights and the state's obligations to the prison population.

However, paying financial compensation to the inmate could amount to opening a pandora's box of legal claims. In Brazil, the prison system stands at 157 percent of its capacity, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, meaning the majority of the country's more than 622,000 inmates could have a legitimate claim to compensation.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Prisons

The crisis in Brazil's prisons has reached a critical point, with prison battles leaving over 130 inmates dead in January as gangs fight for supremacy in the institutions. Overcrowding is at the heart of the crisis, as it makes prisoner control of facilities all but inevitable because the guards are overrun.

Rather than getting bogged down in compensating the prisoners it has failed, the state's time and resources would be better directed toward tackling the underlying causes of overcrowding; a lack of investment in infrastructure, overuse of pretrial detention and hardline populist security laws.

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