By Maria-Fátima Santos
A Pioneering Harm Reduction Program in Bahia State
Entirely coordinated by Black women since its inception in 2013, Corra Pro Abraço (Corra) is one of the first state-funded harm reduction programs in Brazil. Literally translating as “Run to the Embrace,” the program’s mission is to support drug users, people living on the streets, and youth who live or circulate in spaces impacted by high rates of violence. Established in the Northeastern state of Bahia, Corra is funded by the state’s Secretary of Justice, Human Rights, and Social Development (SJDHDS) and operated in partnership with CRIA—a non-profit organization based on a pedagogical model of art and education. Operating both on the streets and in central city courthouses, Corra takes a unique harm reduction approach to engaging with vulnerable populations that challenges the dominant logic of state institutions that penalize poverty, vulnerability, and ethno-racial marginality.
I first came into contact with “Corra” (as many community members fondly call it) through my research in Salvador, Bahia, where I was conducting field observations in the city’s Núcleo de Prisão em Flagrante—the courthouse where all those arrested em flagrante (“in the act”) in the city are taken to a judge to determine whether they will be released or held in confinement until summoned for trial. Corra program operators have a permanent office in the courthouse and play a crucial role in structurally challenging a judicial process that presumes the association of social vulnerability and poverty with criminality.
The association of blackness with criminality is especially glaring within the courthouses of Salvador, home to the largest population of Afro-descendants outside of Africa. The overwhelming majority of defendants who face trial identify as black or pardo (“mixed race”), as does the majority of Salvador’s population overall. In stark contrast, however, these defendants face a courtroom of legal authorities—from prosecutors, to defense attorneys and judges—who are predominantly white or lighter skinned.
Poverty and its intersection with other markers of social marginality—unemployment, substance abuse, and homelessness—increase the risk of pre-trial confinement. Those who cannot prove they have a fixed residence face a high chance of being kept in jail for months before being summoned to trial, even in the cases of alleged offenses that are non-violent or when individuals are arrested for possessing drug quantities more consistent with use (the latter no longer punished with prison time if actually convicted). However, the presence of Corra within the actual courthouse where these bond hearings are held has proposed an alternative: in some cases, judges may decide to release the defendant on the condition that they are connected with Corra Pro Abraço.
Comprised of teams of social workers, educators, sociologists, medical practitioners, psychologists, and legal advisors, Corra facilitates understanding and access to a network of basic services and resources in the areas of health, education, social services, and justice. Additionally, operators draw from methodologies and expressive mediums in the areas of art and education as means of individual and collective social transformation. Through music, theater, and creative workshops, the program’s mission entails crucial political work: to foster individual and collective empowerment among members to understand and insist on their “right to have rights.”
The program takes a unique harm reduction approach to engaging with vulnerable populations and facilitating access to those whose marks of social stigma have systematically denied them access to basic social services. As the director of Corra’s Núcleo de Prisão em Flagrante, Lucinéia Rocha, explains, “We understand that several different forms of social vulnerability are tied to drug use and abuse, so we start from a perspective that considers harm reduction to be as much about enhancing individuals’ access to services as it is about direct engagement related to the drug. In addition to the work we do in the courthouse and on the street, we also run workshops in the Casa [the program’s “home” building]. Some workshops are specifically on drug abuse, but we also have sections on human rights, racism, gender, and sexuality, in ways that bring this content to a political discussion and familiarizes them with our networks. We recognize that there is no way to actually reduce harm without talking about access and human rights.”
Coordinators recognize Corra’s many social achievements in just a short time, while also pointing to daily struggles in destabilizing the dominant association of social vulnerability with criminality. “For those who are on conditional release prior to their trial date, they still have to show up to the courthouse every month to sign their name and get updated on the status of their case. Many of our program participants are afraid that if they show up they will automatically be put behind bars, others literally do not have enough money to pay for the bus ticket to get there, or they do not have the clothes that are recognized as appropriate for entering a courthouse. But, if they don’t show up, then the judge will order that they be put in pre-trial confinement…There are many barriers to accessing ‘real justice.’ We reach out to our networks, in this case the public defender, and they speak with the judge. Some judges have come to respect our work and listen to our concerns, but others…well, they just don’t want to hear it.”
Amidst a social context in which the majority of citizens consistently demand harsher responses to crime, the program poses both a direct and structural challenge to the harms done to socially vulnerable populations, who are perceived as “criminals,” while in fact they are among those most directly impacted by the pervasive violence in the region.
Violence, drugs, and the punitive management of poor and black Brazilians
As of 2018, amidst the 50 most violent cities in the world, Brazil was featured more than any other country, with 17 cities making the list. National and international human rights organizations persistently emphasize concerns of widespread violence characterized by disputes tied to organized crime, police abuse, and extrajudicial mass killings in poor urban neighborhoods, gruesomely violent prisons, and legislation that provides significant protection to the army’s unlawful killing of citizens. Poor, black, and socially disadvantaged urban communities comprise those most directly impacted by the violence that plagues the region.
Illicit narcotics commerce and militarized enforcement of anti-narcotics legislation are among a complex constellation of factors that have shaped Brazil’s sky-high rates of violence, which are also shaped by political instability and corruption, the organic relationship between the state and organized crime, and a deeply entrenched history of state institutions treating the poor and black citizens as enemies.
Backed by political discourses associating soaring rates of violence with organized crime, Brazil’s expanding and militarizing police forces have aggressively—and very selectively—targeted narcotics possession in particular. Brazil has since seen its most accelerated incarceration boom, with a dramatic increase in the percentage of those incarcerated under allegations of drug trafficking. With 683,000 individuals behind bars in 2018, Brazil incarcerates more than any other country in Latin America, and ranks third largest worldwide (surpassed only by the U.S. and China). One third of arrestees are confined for drug-related offenses, and among incarcerated women more specifically, violations of Brazil’s Drug Law comprise a staggering 65 percent of arrestees. 
Incarceration has proven to be a blatantly ineffective tool for remedying the violence associated with illicit narcotics commerce. Instead, it has actively contributed to reinforcing the association of criminality with poverty and marginalized ethno-racial groups. The majority of those arrested for alleged narcotics distribution are neither the primary operators nor benefactors of highly lucrative illicit drug markets. Instead, those flooding dismal and overcrowded jails and prisons are addicts, “drug mules,” or low-level street dealers trying to support their own addiction, and who come from the most socially disadvantaged segments of Brazilian society. 
Importantly, Brazil’s 2006 National Drug Law revoked prison time as punishment for illicit narcotics use for the first time in the country since the 1940s. This law opened up the possibility to develop alternative and non-punitive initiatives for illicit drug users. However, few programs exist to actually provide such alternatives for the poor and socially marginalized, who are systematically denied access to basic social services and continue to be thrown behind bars under allegations of narcotics trafficking.
In reality, scholarship has shown that illicit narcotics commerce successfully operates through a complex and interdependent relationship between powerful Brazilian comando organizations and the state,  which simultaneously incarcerates the citizens it neglects.
Among the glaring exceptions to the Brazilian state’s punitive approach to the poor and marginalized Brazilians is Corra Pro Abraço. Corra presents a generative model for understanding the complex conditions of social vulnerability, structurally challenging the punitive logic of the state, and embarking on both the practical and subjective work involved to transform the relationship between marginalized citizens and the state.
For more information on Corra pro Abraço, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
 Mexico Citizen’s Council for Public Security’s Annual Ranking. 2018.
 Departamento Penitenciário Nacional (DEPEN). 2014. Levantamento Nacional de Informações Penitenciárias. Brasilia: Ministério da Justiça.
 Boiteux, L. 2011. “Drugs and Prisons: The Repression of Drugs and the Increase of the Brazilian Penitentiary Population,” Systems Overload-Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America. Amsterdam/Washington: Transnational Institute/Washington Office Latin America, pp. 30-8.
 Arias, Enrique Desmond. 2006. Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security. University of North Carolina Press.
Maria-Fátima Santos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the state, violence, law, and development and transnational drug control in Latin America. Her MA research studied a state-wide initiative to modernize the prison system of Brazil’s Espírito Santo State and its implications for understanding the features and functions of incarceration in Brazil. Her dissertation research turns to analyze the work of public defenders in criminal drug courts, which reveals the workings of Brazil’s criminal courts at the ground level. She was previously a Berkeley Empirical Legal Studies Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, and her research has been supported by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), Institute of International Studies, U.S. Fulbright, and the Social Science Research Council. Contact: email@example.com