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  • Inmates are seen on a roof during an uprising at Alcacuz prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil.

    Inmates are seen on a roof during an uprising at Alcacuz prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil. | Photo: Reuters

The case could open up a wave of other claims, which some judges argue could financially cripple the state.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that inmates in the country’s heavily overcrowded prisons are entitled to compensation from the state, after an ex-inmate brought his case to the court. As Brazil has one of the highest rates of prison overcrowding in the world, the ruling could set precedent for thousands of other claims, all while the state deals with its one of the worst economic recessions in recent history.

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The former Mato Grosso do Sul prisoner served part of his 20-year sentence for robbery in a cell of hundreds, originally designed for just 12 people. The court found that the state had failed to provide a minimum level of infrastructure and that the prisoner was held in degrading and unsanitary conditions. Due to the overcrowding, the former prisoner told the court he had to sleep with his head in a toilet.

The court’s most senior member, Justice Celso de Mello, said that the state had acted with absolute indifference towards the prisoner and criticized the general negligence of the state prison system.

While the prisoner asked the court for compensation in the amount of the monthly minimum wage, judges disagreed on the amount and he was awarded a fixed amount of US$644. Judges who voted against the claim were concerned that compensation could open a huge amount of cases that could potentially “break the state” and instead said overcrowding should be tackled by reducing prison sentences.

An increasingly hard-handed approach to crime and the “war on drugs” – in particular through a 2006 law which gave judges the power to determine who is a drug dealer – has seen Brazil’s prison rates rise by over 50 percent. Jails have been swamped by low-level offenders, mostly from disavantaged backgrounds.

Brazil has the fifth highest prison population in the world at 622,202 people, according to data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Prison capacity currently sits at 157 percent over the official occupancy rate. An estimated 37,000 inmates would have the potential to claim compensation from the state for overcrowding.

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Overcrowding has seen rival gang members and violent individuals in close proximity to one another. This coupled with shortages of prison guards has helped fuel a number of deadly prison riots. More than 130 people have been killed in prisons in 2017 alone.

Under President Michel Temer, the federal government’s solution to overcrowding has been to announce the construction of more prisons around the country, which takes time and large sums of money.

According to Brazil’s National Justice Council, it will take six years to complete the new facilities that are currently under construction and will cost just over US$3 billion to resolve the human rights issues associated with prison overcrowding.

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