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Behind Bars in Brazil

I. Summary and Recommendations



By any measure, the Brazilian penal system is enormous. Brazil incarcerates more people than any other country in Latin America (indeed, it has more prison staff than most countries have prisoners); it operates the largest single prison in the region; even its annual escape numbers run into the thousands. Unfortunately, the defects of this huge and unwieldy system are of corresponding proportions. Human rights abuses are committed daily in Brazil's penal facilities, and they affect many thousands of people. The causes of this situation are varied and complex, but certain critical factors can be identified. Among them, perhaps most importantly, is the sense that the victims of abuse--prison inmates and, therefore, criminals--are not worthy of public concern.

Given Brazil's high rate of violent crime, public apathy toward prison abuses is unsurprising. Prisoners come almost exclusively from the poor, uneducated, and politically powerless margins of society. To confine them in humane conditions is a costly proposition. Yet the default solution-to confine them in conditions of extreme overcrowding, where medical care is lacking and physical abuse is common-is also expensive, exacting a high cost in ruined lives, in blatant disrespect for the law, and in recidivism. Moreover, the penal system's defects are in great part due to an absence of political will to remedy them, rather than a shortage of funds. Some of the most extreme cruelties visited upon Brazilian inmates, such as summary executions by military police, can in no way be attributed to meager public resources. At present, in light of the dire state of the current system, it is critical that state prison and police authorities-with the support of state legislators, prosecutors, and relevant federal officials-begin to institute a panoply of much-needed reforms.

Although conditions vary significantly from state to state and from institution to institution, conditions of confinement in Brazil are very often appalling. Many penal facilities hold two to five times more inmates than they were designed for. In some facilities, the overcrowding has reached inhuman levels, with inmates jammed together in a tight crowd. The densely packed cells and dormitories in these places offer such sights as prisoners tied to windows to lessen the demand for floor space, and prisoners being forced to sleep on top of hole-in-the-floor toilets.

In most prisons, the distribution of living space is relatively unregulated, so that the burden of overcrowding falls disproportionately on certain prisoners. In general, prisoners who are poorer, weaker, and less powerful tend to live in correspondingly less habitable accommodations. Typically, the disciplinary and holding cells-which are as likely to hold prisoners needing protection from other prisoners as they are to hold those being punished-are the most cramped anduncomfortable areas. Conditions in the security cells on the fifth floor of pavilion five of São Paulo's Casa de Detenção are particularly miserable. On both days that Human Rights Watch visited this area, we found eight prisoners crammed into each single-person cell, and a few cells holding ten. The air in these gloomy chambers was thick with carbon dioxide and body odor. Deprived of sunlight and exercise, the approximately 350 inmates held in this area were rarely allowed outside of their cells; indeed, other prisoners universally referred to them as the "yellow ones."

While certain prisons are crowded far beyond their capacities, the most overcrowded penal facilities in Brazil are generally the police lockups. Rather than being

used as places of short-term detention for newly arrested criminal suspects, as they are supposed to be, police lockups in many states hold inmates for long periods, even years. In states where the prison authorities are able to limit the transfer of additional inmates from lockups to the prisons, the police end up being left in charge of a significant proportion of the inmate population. Indeed, in the most extreme cases-São Paulo and Minas Gerais-the police have become a de facto prison authority, supplementing or nearly replacing the conventional prison system. The state of São Paulo has taken important steps to remedy this situation in recent months by opening several new prisons, yet as of late October 1998 over 32,000 inmates remained in police hands. By restricting the transfer of prisoners from police lockups into the prison system, state prison authorities are to a significant extent abdicating their function.

The long-term detention of prisoners in police lockups aggravates the serious problem of police torture, endemic to Brazil. In the course of our research, Human Rights Watch interviewed scores of prisoners who credibly described being tortured in police precincts. Inmates were typically stripped naked, hung from a "parrot's perch," and subjected to beatings, electrical shocks, and near-drownings. Many detainees remained for long periods in the precincts where they suffered the abuse, enduring continuing contact with their torturers. The state of Rio Grande do Sul, where criminal suspects are immediately transferred out of police custody, is a salutary exception in this regard.

The lack of health care is another issue of serious concern. Potentially lethal diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS have reached epidemic levels among Brazilian inmates. Given prisoners' many connections to the community outside the prisons, and their eventual return to this community, the unchecked spread of disease among inmates represents a serious public health risk. Although Brazil's national prison law mandates that prisoners have access to various types of assistance, including medical care, legal aid, and social services, none of these benefits are provided to the extent contemplated under the terms of the law, nor is medical care-the most basic and necessary of the three services-available ateven minimally adequate levels to many prisoners. In most facilities, qualified medical staff are few and medicines are difficult to obtain. The situation is particularly bad in police lockups, where severely ill and even dying prisoners may remain crowded together with other inmates.

Another serious problem is inmate-on-inmate violence. In the most dangerous prisons, powerful inmates kill others with impunity, while even in relatively secure prisons extortion and other lesser forms of mistreatment are common. A number of factors combine to cause such abuses, among them, the prisons' harsh conditions, lack of effective supervision, abundance of weapons, lack of activities, and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of inmate classification. Indeed, violent recidivists and persons held for first-time petty offenses often share the same cell in Brazil. The Dr. João Chaves Penitentiary, in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte-where ten prisoners were killed between March 1997 and February 1998-presents a particularly chilling example of this problem. Another gruesome episode was the May 1998 gang clash at the Professor Barreto Campelo Prison, in Pernambuco, which left at least twenty-two inmates dead. Unfortunately, because the national prison census ceased to compile statistics on inmate killings after 1994, the overall levels of inmate-on-inmate brutality are unknown.

Even more shocking from a human rights perspective is the frequent official violence visited upon Brazilian inmates. The most egregious instances of brutality-including summary executions of prisoners-have been committed by the civil and military police. Both civil and military police were implicated in the 1989 suffocation deaths of eighteen prisoners in a São Paulo police lockup, while military police alone effected the 1992 Carandiru massacre, killing a total of 111 inmates. Military police were also implicated in the July 1997 slaughter of eight prisoners in João Pessoa, Paraíba; the December 1997 killings of seven escaped prisoners near Fortaleza, Ceará; and the February 1998 killings of at least six escaped prisoners in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. Much more frequent-even chronic-are instances of abuse that fall short of killing but that sometimes rise to the level of torture. On countless occasions, members of the civil and military police have beaten inmates in the wake of riots and escape attempts. Given that the record of many states' police in conducting their regular policing duties is severely blemished by brutality, corruption, and related abuses, it is not surprising that their history of dealing with inmates is similarly flawed.

Encouraging these acts of violence is the persistent impunity that prevails for officials guilty of them. At every stage of the criminal process-from investigation to prosecution to judgment to appeal-the scales are heavily weighted in favor of the perpetrator of abuse. Indeed, very few incidents of physical abuse of prisoners, including even the most egregious cases of torture, are everinvestigated. Only killings of inmates-whose dead bodies are difficult to ignore-appear to merit investigation and prosecution, and even then the conviction and subsequent incarceration of the guilty parties are exceedingly rare. In other words, public prosecutors and other justice officials share much of the blame for the high levels of official violence that prisoners face.

Under the national prison law, all convicted inmates in Brazil are required to work; educational and training opportunities are supposed to be available; and inmates should be offered reasonable possibilities of recreation. Despite the law's clear mandate, only a minority of Brazilian prisoners are offered the opportunity to work. Because prisoners who work are eligible for sentence reductions, and thus earlier release from prison, the paucity of available work contributes to prison overcrowding. Educational and training opportunities are also scarce, giving prisoners few constructive outlets for their energies. In some prisons, and particularly in police lockups, even recreation is limited.

On the positive side of the balance, Brazilian penal facilities normally offer generous visiting policies, allowing prisoners regular face-to-face visits with their family and friends, and even conjugal visits. Not all facilities, however, are equally commendable in this regard, and certain systemic abuses can also be identified. The primary obstacle to inmates' visits is the humiliating treatment of visitors, who may be subject to poorly regulated strip searches and even, according to some inmates' allegations, invasive vaginal searches.

Women inmates are generally spared some of the worst aspects of the men's prisons-enjoying greater access to work opportunities, suffering less custodial violence, and being provided with greater material support-but they also bear special burdens. Most notably, women in many states face discrimination with regard to conjugal visiting rights. While male prisoners tend to be freely granted such visits, with little or no control exercised by state authorities, women prisoners are sometimes denied them or allowed them only under extremely tight restrictions. In addition, despite the Brazilian constitutional requirement that women prisoners be permitted to keep their nursing babies during the entire lactation period, women confined in some penal facilities lose their infants immediately after delivering them. Human Rights Watch interviewed two mothers who had given birth less than a month and a half before our visits: both of them had seen their babies only once in that period.


Human Rights Watch welcomes the Brazilian federal government's recent attention to the problems and deficiencies of its penal facilities but urges both federal and state authorities to take more decisive measures for improving the direconditions of the country's prisons, jails and police lockups. In our view, plans to build more facilities-which appear to be the primary focus of the current reform effort-are not only unlikely to be of sufficient scope to satisfy the pressing demand for detention space but will do nothing toward remedying the other serious defects of the penal system, such as the chronic and appalling problem of custodial violence. If the penal system is to be reformed in any meaningful way, the responsible authorities will have to institute wide-ranging changes.

Human Rights Watch therefore urges state and federal authorities to adopt the following reforms (some of which are already being implemented in various jurisdictions).

Control Police and Guard Brutality

  • Public prosecutors should promptly and vigorously investigate allegations of abuse of inmates by military and civil police forces. In cases in which abuses are found, criminal prosecutions against the perpetrators should be instituted and aggressively pursued. The practice of impunity for abuses against prisoners must be ended. While investigations are ungoing, police and guards accused of homocide or other serious abuses should at a minimum be placed on unarmed duty.

  • State authorities should revise procedures for investigating abuses against prisoners, allowing the investigative and evidence-gathering authorities (such as coroner's offices) greater independence from the police authorities.

  • Only qualified civilian personnel should be employed in the prisons. States that rely upon civil and military police to staff the prisons should hire and train a professional corps of guards. In general, initial guard training should be expanded, and regular update training should be provided as well.

  • State prison and police authorities should train police and guards regarding Brazilian and international norms mandating the humane treatment of prisoners and should caution them that officers engaging in unauthorized disciplinary sanctions, corrupt practices, or other abuses will be punished accordingly.

Reduce Overcrowding

  • The National Congress should expand the possibilities of pretrial release by amending existing laws that bar it.

  • Every state should establish the full panoply of open and semi-open penal facilities envisioned in the national prison law. Judges of penal execution, charged with supervising inmates' term of incarceration, should closely monitor inmates' eligibility for transfer to these less restrictive environments, ensuring that inmates are transferred there at the proper times.

  • Judges should overcome their reluctance to sentence criminal offenders to such alternatives to prison as community service. Those offenders who pose a limited risk to society-including, in particular, prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes-should be considered as appropriate candidates for the application of alternative sanctions.

Limit Police Lockups to Short-Term Detention of Criminal Suspects

  • As is the practice in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, police lockups should only be used for the short-term detention of newly arrested criminal suspects. As soon as possible, but within a few days at most, inmates should be transferred out of police hands into public jails under the authority of state justice secretariats. At present, the police and prison authorities in every state where lockups are improperly relied upon for medium- and long-term detention should draft a plan as to how this goal is to be achieved, outlining a workable solution that can be fully implemented within a period of no more than two years. Government officials in Minas Gerais and São Paulo should adopt and implement such plans as a matter of top priority.

    Ameliorate Harsh Physical Conditions and Improve the Provision of Care

  • State prison and police authorities should renovate the physical infrastructure of penal facilities that have fallen into disrepair. The Porto Alegre Central Prison, in Rio Grande do Sul, the João Chaves Penitentiary in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, and the Raimundo Vidal Pessoa Penitentiary in Manaus, Amazonas, should, in particular, be either renovated or demolished. In São Paulo, the Secretariat of Penal Administration should follow through on its stated plans to close down the Casa de Detenção and replace it with several smaller facilities. Thefederal government should provide financial assistance to states to help fund these efforts.

  • State prison and police authorities should ensure that all prisoners are provided basic necessities including mattresses and bedding, sufficient food and drinking water, and necessary sanitary supplies.

  • State prison and police authorities should take immediate steps to correct the severe deficiencies in the provision of medical care to prisoners, by hiring more doctors and providing each penal facility with the necessary stock of basic medical supplies. Particular attention should be given to addressing the epidemic of HIV/AIDS among the prison population.

  • Prisoners with contagious diseases should be segregated from healthy prisoners and given appropriate medical treatment.

  • State prison and police authorities should seriously consider granting compassionate release to prisoners in the advanced stages of AIDS and other terminal illnesses. Rapid and efficient methods of identifying and processing such prisoners should be established so that they do not die in prison.

  • State prison and police authorities should expand their provision of legal assistance to prisoners.

Prevent Inmate-on-Inmate Abuses

  • State prison authorities should establish rational systems of classification in the prisons, so that nonviolent prisoners are separated from their more dangerous fellows and, as much as possible, placed in appropriate minimum security facilities.

  • State prison and police authorities should hire sufficient numbers of guards to ensure the effective supervisions of inmates under their charge. To help secure and retain qualified personnel, and to avoid corruption, these guards should be offered salaries commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of supervising prisoners.

  • Prisoners should never be assigned internal security responsibilities or be placed in positions of power over each other, even informally.

  • State prison and police authorities should separate sentenced and unsentenced prisoners. Indeed, no sentenced prisoners should be held in pretrial detention facilities, particularly not in police lockups.

Facilitate Prisoners' Contacts with Family and Friends

  • The National Congress should amend the national prison law to institute a uniform national policy covering intrusive searches of visitors, particularly strip searches and vaginal searches. Such a policy should carefully balance the need for prison security against visitors' rights to privacy and humane treatment, including appropriate safeguards against arbitrary, unnecessary, or discriminatory searches. Whenever possible less intrusive methods of searching visitors such as metal detectors should be employed.

  • State authorities should formulate and enforce uniform conjugal visiting policies that do not discriminate against women prisoners, either as written or as applied.

Encourage Rehabilitation and Provide Inmates with Meaningful Activities

  • State prison authorities should expand the number of work opportunities available in the prisons. In particular, they should strive to create jobs and training programs that equip prisoners with useful skills, in order to facilitate their employment upon release, and their successful reintegration into society.

  • Educational opportunities in the prisons should also be expanded.

  • State prison and police authorities should ensure that all prisoners are allowed at least one hour daily of outdoor exercise. In particular, prisoners held in holding and isolation cells should be guaranteed sufficient recreational opportunities. While steps should be taken to limit prisoners' stays in all police lockups, special care should be taken to ensure that prisoners are rapidly transferred out of lockups lacking outdoor exercise facilities.

Facilitate the Monitoring of Conditions and Treatment

  • More judges of penal execution should be created, and existing vacancies should be filled. Regular national and regional meetings of judges of penal execution should be held to facilitate the exchange of informationregarding prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Representatives of the National Council on Criminal and Penitentiary Policy (NCCPP) should also attend such meetings.

  • Judges should abide by the national prison law's requirement that they inspect the penal facilities within their jurisdiction on a monthly basis. In making such visits, they should speak individually with prisoners and lower-level prison staff outside the presence of the prison authorities. They should take particular care to speak privately with prisoners held in punishment cells and other isolation areas. Other monitoring mechanisms described in the national prison law, such as NCCPP, should also expand their programs of prison inspections.

  • State legislatures should establish civilian review boards and police ombudspersons (ouvidorias), such as the one that exists in São Paulo, to oversee the police and review complaints of police abuse. These institutions should be provided with sufficient personnel and material support to allow them to perform their duties effectively. They should also be given full subpoena power, as well as full access to penal facilities and police stations, to allow them to conduct exhaustive investigations of abuse. Similar bodies should be established to monitor and report on prison abuses.

  • To facilitate a greater understanding of women prisoners' situation and needs, the National Council on Criminal and Penitentiary Policy should ensure that the next national prison census disaggregates its information by gender. For example, statistics on the types of crimes committed should be provided separately with regard to men and women prisoners.

  • The national prison census should include information on the number of prisoners killed while incarcerated, as it did in 1994 but failed to do in 1995. These numbers should be further disaggregated to indicate how many inmates were killed by prison guards and police and how many were killed by other inmates.

  • National and state authorities should cooperate fully with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, assuming, in particular, full responsibility to remedy the human rights violations found by that body.

  • State prison and police authorities should grant representatives of human rights and other nongovernmental organizations regular access to all penal facilities and allow them to speak privately with inmates. The work of the Prison Ministry, in particular, should be encouraged. State prison and police officials, as well as federal officials from the Penitentiary Department and the National Council on Criminal and Penitentiary Policy, should meet regularly with representatives of such groups to hear their views on prison deficiencies.

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