Comparing prison systems in a Christmas critical context

And the importance of critiquing your environment for the sake of change and reform.                         

Comparing prison systems in a Christmas critical context

By: Maria Fernanda

December 23rd 2021

It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and exactly the way our skin starts shining again when summer arrives, it seems that Christmas lights around the streets kiss our souls, melting our frozen hearts. This is the time of the year when it becomes easier to approach themes related to social-political issues, maybe because of religious ideas already naturalized. 


I came from Brazil, and besides samba, Carnaval, and football, I am used to seeing suffering around: homeless, violence, and the wreckage of capitalism. However, after moving to Sweden things changed a lot. I plunged into a new social bubble, where things are prettier, richer, and lighter. The first world – they say. I am not saying things here are perfect, but when the state of your environment guarantees basic social policies to the citizens of the place, it is easier to internalize peace as a social norm, even though it is not.


Sweden has a very different system compared to Brazil. Consequently, it is rare to look around and end up questioning how prisoners are going to spend Christmas night, for example. First-world conditions do not encourage individuals to criticize what must receive a critical analysis, there is a mask capable of covering all damage capitalist logic is responsible for. 


Therefore, when there is a space open for different ideas, people must make good use of it. Christmas is coming, and perhaps, after reading this article, the mask may disappear for a short time, then we can criticize the fact that we do not criticize our surroundings enough. 


Prison Systems – Brazil versus Sweden

In international legal terms, Brazil is in third place presenting the largest number of incarcerated individuals, remaining behind China and the United States. According to data released by Infopen – National Survey of Prison Information in English – the total number of individuals imprisoned in the country reached 800,000 with an occupancy rate of 200%. About 40% of inmates do not have a judicial conviction, 64% are black, and more than half of the prisoners are between 18 and 29 years old.


The women’s situation is alarming. In the most severe cases of overcrowding, as in the Amazon, adolescent women and men share the same police station adapted as a prison. In many prisons, inmates are neglected in their basic care and are forced to use bread crumbs as sanitary pads.


It is important to notice and clarify the existence of a Brazilian penal institution rooted in racist policies. The system acts as a form of social control and brings the understanding that committing a crime does not necessarily lead to imprisonment. Depending on who you are, where you live, and whom you “want” to be, chances might be higher to be incarcerated. Unemployed individuals, individuals with a low level of education and low-income people will be subjected to convictions that punish their social position.


Art. 59 – The judge, given the guilt, background, social conduct, the personality of the agent, motives, circumstances, and consequences of the crime, as well as the victim’s behavior, shall establish, as necessary and sufficient for disapproval and prevention of the crime […] (PENAL CODE, Article 59).


The Swedish prison system, on the other hand, has a different mantra: rehabilitation, not incarceration. Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s probation service, notes:Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us”.


All of the 48 Swedish prisons have a total capacity of over 5,000 inmates, however only about 4,000 are currently incarcerated (2017). Owing to the fact that the prisoners get an opportunity to study to be able to have a greater chance of getting a job when they leave the Prison Service, Sweden has the smallest number of re-offenders in all of Europe, around 16%. 


“Those sentenced to punishment have different conditions for treatment. The goal is for each person to be able to take care of themselves, be free from addiction and be able to make a living legally.” (


In “open prisons,” prisoners live in housing that resembles university dorms, they have access to televisions, do not need to use uniforms, and even though some data already admits that the number of Swedish inmates has been increasing during the last years, the situation is not even close to being comparable to the Brazilian prison system. 


Why has such a random theme been chosen for this article? The fact that some people may question it explains why we need to highlight this type of social movement. 


This article is a reminder. Not just for people around, but especially for me. I may be feeling great right now, living my own stable student life, but if I do not “force” myself to bring such themes to the discussion, how am I supposed to affirm and believe that some things can change?  


When people start talking and approaching such critical analysis on their routine, things start changing. You do not need to wait for Christmas time, political fights are here, everywhere, every time. 


Direct help

Many social organizations operate in these areas of violence and rely on the help of voluntary work to reduce harm and promote the defense of human rights.

Here I let some Brazilian organizations that might be important to know more about, and maybe, join the fight with them!


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