LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Dipa Patel

April 11th, 2018

Why is nobody talking about prisons?

1 comment | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Dipa Patel

April 11th, 2018

Why is nobody talking about prisons?

1 comment | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Alumnus and 2017 MSc Development Management graduate, Debora Zampier, investigates why the crises in prison management are neglected by state policy, and uses Brazil as a case study to offer alternative ways to approach the subject that takes authority, incentives and accountability (AIA) mechanisms into consideration.

This research has been summarised from her Master’s thesis, ‘Nobody’s fault’: investigating institutional causes of prisons’ mismanagment, which was awarded a distinction.

Credit: Luiz Silveira/CNJ

Prisons symbolise all that goes wrong in the interplay between state, market, and civil society, a mix of social abandonment, lack of opportunities and wrong incentives. At least ten million people are incarcerated worldwide, and yet, the topic is virtually invisible in development debates. In the humanitarian arena, state violations against inmates have far less public profile than violations involving victims of war, immigrants or refugees – just check the news.

Coming from Latin America, I have always wondered why chronic crises in prisons’ management are so neglected from a policy perspective, creating scenarios of segmented state failures where functioning states coexist with collapsed prisons. This neglect has allowed organised crime to grow and spread from within, but states seem unable to respond and civil society remains largely apathetic. The path to understanding this phenomenon needs an interdisciplinary investigation of formal and informal institutions, starting with a reflection about state effectiveness and the process of change.

The ‘no citizens’ issue

Development debates about improving state effectiveness usually revolve around the idea of active citizenship. But prisoners do not fit this argument for two reasons. First, they generally lose the right to vote once imprisoned and become tax consumers rather than tax payers. Second, prisoners usually come from low income groups that lack voice and political leverage.

As a result, the pressure for a better system has to start from broad civil society, but this solution faces practical problems. From a behavioural perspective, it is logical to expect civil society to object to the idea of having its taxes spent on the wellbeing of people that negatively impinged on the public, particularly in a scenario of widespread violence and no guarantees of rehabilitation. This argument is even more relevant for developing countries, where state effectiveness in priority areas such as health and education is weak and where the expenses to keep one inmate can be larger than many households’ entire income.

Identifying the gaps

So, is it possible to improve prisons without having civil society as an ally? To answer this, I tried to look for gaps in the macro institutional arrangements of authority, incentives and accountability (AIA), using Brazil as a case study. My findings are summarized below.

Authority: three points of institutional conflict weakens state authority, resulting in incoordination between key actors and lack of compliance. 1) Federal versus local – the system is decentralised and the 27 local governments enjoy a high level of autonomy and discretion in prisons’ management, many times ignoring federal laws and policies; 2) Executive versus Judiciary – both are responsible for the penal execution (the Executive manages the system and the Judiciary delivers the penal execution), but they blame each other for the problems and the shared responsibility avoids any responsibility; 3) Prison system versus public security – their close institutional proximity is impeding the prison system to set an independent agenda, while a repressive approach to public security is worsening prisons’ conditions.

Incentives: the two main sources of incentives able to induce state agents to deliver better services are very weak for the prison system. 1) Political: politicians and state agents see few incentives to improve prisons when civil society is not interested in this agenda and when they perceive no political or financial gains in doing so. 2) Financial: considering the example of the Brazilian health system, local states could better adhere to national policies aimed at the prison system if receiving financial incentives from the central government. However, the federal budget for this purpose has been cut, diverted, or blocked over the past years.

Accountability: the lack of accountability is both the cause and consequence of problems in authority and incentives described above. This situation links back to the conclusion about broad civil society apathy and reluctance to pressure the government for improvements.

So what?

State agents usually wash their hands of the problem, arguing that dysfunctional prisons are too complex to change. However, it is possible to find shortcuts by targeting the right AIA mechanisms.  One example is the Custody Hearings programme, which obliged Brazilian judges to meet pre-trial detainees before issuing a ruling. It avoided more than 115.000 unnecessary incarcerations in two years, all without the need for big investments or new laws.

The program was implemented in 2015 by the former chief justice of the National Council of Justice and the Supreme Federal Court, justice Ricardo Lewandowski, who used his authority and leadership to coordinate local actors. It also explored different incentives: magistrates were asked to comply with the law, while Executive actors were presented with the chance to cut costs. Based on agreements with local states representatives rather than a legal reform, the accountability aspect is the weakest pillar, and the program depends on the incentives perceived by local actors to keep existing.

The findings of this study offers alternative ways to approach a subject that provokes intemperate emotions, deeply conflicting interests and intractable disagreements, as well defined by the criminologist David Garland. Here are some ways to address institutional gaps taking AIA mechanisms into consideration:

  • Considering its special nature in service delivery dynamics, prisons can benefit from a source of central authority able to induce and articulate policies.
  • If broad civil society is apathetic, there is a great space for specialized civic organisations connected with legality and human rights to join forces and advocate for a progressive agenda.
  • Some windows of opportunity can be explored as political incentives to improve prisons’ management (e.g.: risk of paralysis of public agents threatened by the organised crime; the increasing costs to maintain the system)
  • Instead of focusing on alerts and normative prescriptions with limited efficacy, the international community could act more strategically with local actors considering AIA mechanisms already in place.

Debora Zampier (@DeboraZampier) is a journalist and recent graduate of the MSc Development Management programme. She has been covering the Brazilian Justice system for the past ten years and has a strong interest in the intersection between government, social justice and human rights. You can email her at:

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Dipa Patel

Posted In: Department Alumni | Featured | Topical and Comment


RSS Justice and Security Research Programme

RSS LSE’s engagement with South Asia

  • Digital Product Passports: Climate Emergency and Bangladesh’s RMG Industry
    Bangladesh remains very vulnerable to climate emergencies & climate-induced disasters, now and in future. Some of its most important economic sectors — like the Ready-made Garments (RMG) industry — have a high environmental impact. In this post, Ezzat Tanzila Evana looks ahead, and discusses if and how European-style Digital Product Passports may be a viable […]
  • Sri Lanka, the IMF and Pathways to Economic Stability
    Sri Lanka has had a long association with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since her independence in 1948 — in fact, the latest loan (in 2023) is its 17th IMF support package. In this post, Tharindu Udayanga Kamburawala analyses the trends and reasons behind Sri Lanka’s recurring reliance on the IMF, and suggests ways forward towards […]