But, why would any of this be related to abolition? First, because there is a direct connection between extractivist megaprojects and the criminal justice system. This is a connection that we’ve been discussing for a while, and that we’ll address whenever we can, for it’s a connection neglected even among abolitionists.
In July 2019, sixty-eight people were killed during an uprising at Altamira’s regional prison. According to a report by the National Council of Justice (CNJ), produced after the uprising, the prison population amounted to 343 men, but the official capacity was only 163. Media outlets and the criminal justice system’s agencies stated that the cause of the uprising and deaths were, among other things, prison overcrowding, and they called for the construction of a prison complex in the neighboring city of Vitória do Xingu, as it was already planned by the state government. The idea that prison massacres can be avoided by building more prisons is one the premises behind proposals focused on a more humane approach to punishment since at least the Carandiru Massacre of 1992. This is a premise that has consistently been proven wrong.
Looking briefly at the data from the Prison Administration Secretariat of Pará (SEAP-PA), we find that the Vitória do Xingu prison complex was inaugurated in November 2019, with 612 beds, spread across two maximum security units (one for men and another for women) and one medium security unit. As was expected, in the following month, December 2019, the men’s unit was already overcrowded, with 379 inmates housed in facilities with only 306 beds—and 234 of these inmates were pre-trial detainees. Thus, the allegation that the July massacre wouldn’t have happened if the new prison were available is clearly indefensible. Once more, the history of Brazilian prisons reveals that the construction of new prisons does not solve the overcrowding problem of the old ones. It only reproduces it anew. The same goes for the “faction war,” a conflict between prison groups that only grows and evolves with each new prison inaugurated.
The Vitória do Xingu prison complex was included in the same set of construction plans to build Belo Monte. Norte Energia, the company in charge of the construction, was contractually required to deliver a prison. One of the first explanations for the massacre of July 2019 was, therefore, that the new prison had not yet been inaugurated. Tragically, what was a contractual obligation became a public demand in the words of some environmentalists and legal experts.
However, once inaugurated, the Vitória do Xingu prison complex became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The contractual obligation for its construction made it clear that nothing would be done to limit or reduce the effects of Belo Monte. The very existence of a prison among the compensatory measures for the harm and impact caused by the hydroelectric dam made one thing clear: the only policy considered for the Xingu region was law enforcement.
Thus, the rationale behind this process is the inverse of what many analysts stated at the time: it was not because Vitória do Xingu’s prison hadn’t been inaugurated that the massacred occurred at Altamira’s prison. It was because Vitória do Xingu’s prison was already included in Belo Monte’s construction plans that none of the social problems related to the increased violence in the region were addressed.
The prison itself is the impossibility of any compensation or reparations for the people affected by the hydroelectric dam. But the prison has gone nearly unnoticed, even among the many people that actively resisted Belo Monte. Well, unnoticed until now.