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Behind Bars in Brazil

IV. São Paulo and Minas Gerais:
The Police Lockup as Prison


You'll see: it's like a trash receptacle: the prisoners here have been thrown away like trash. The conditions are subhuman. Go ahead, write that down: SUBHUMAN.

-João Batista Araújo, commander of São Paulo's third police precinct, warning Human Rights Watch researchers about conditions in the precinct lockup.


Police lockups are supposed to hold criminal suspects upon arrest and for short periods of time-a few days at most-until their release or their transfer into a larger pretrial detention facility. At any given moment, therefore, the police authorities should confine only a small fraction of the total inmate population, the bulk of inmates being held in penal facilities under the authority of the prison system. There are important philosophical and practical reasons supporting this general rule: first, that the investigating authority should not also be the detaining authority, given the incentives that exist for the former body to abuse its custodial power and place undue pressure on criminal suspects; and second, that police lockups are built as small, temporary facilities and usually have little provision for work, recreation, education, visits, or other activities. Their physical plant, in other words, is ill-equipped for holding prisoners for any extended period of time.

Despite these concerns, large numbers of prisoners in Brazil remain for long periods in the power of the police. Indeed, in some states, the normal proportions are reversed: the prison system holds only a fraction of the inmate population, and the police authority-the Secretariat of Public Security-has become the de facto prison authority. The most significant examples of this phenomenon are the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, which adminster Brazil's first- and third- largest inmate populations, respectively. With nearly half of the state's inmates being held in facilities operated by its Secretariat of Public Security, São Paulo has delegated a significant part of its prison responsibilities tothe police.103 In Minas Gerais, the figures are even more appalling: 82 percent of state inmates are held in police lockups.104

Overall, as of the 1995 prison census, the country's prisons only held 61.4 percent of the total inmate population, with the remainder being held in police lockups and jails under the control of state public security secretariats. A high percentage of these inmates had already been convicted and sentenced, yet they remained confined together with pretrial detainees in violation of international norms requiring the separation of accused and convicted prisoners.105

Not only are convicted prisoners held in police lockups, but they are often held there well after being convicted. Indeed, Human Rights Watch researchers met numerous prisoners in São Paulo who had remained in lockups for years after conviction. At the sixteenth police precinct, the commander told us that prisoners often stay five to seven years in a daily routine of "complete idleness."106 In Minas Gerais, in a lockup in which 260 prisoners (and sometimes up to 310 prisoners) were regularly held in space for sixty-seven, we found several prisoners who had been confined for two or three years, and one who had been held there for five and a half years. For such prisoners, detention in police lockups not only means worse conditions, it also means that they are unable to work and thus unable to benefit from the sentence reduction provisions of the national prison law.

Thus, rather than holding a handful of criminal suspects, the population of many states' lockups is skewed toward convicted prisoners. In São Paulo, when we visited, a slight majority of prisoners in police custody had been sentenced; inMinas Gerais, nearly three-quarters; in Brasília, 20 percent.107 In recent months, however, the São Paulo authorities have taken important steps to place convicted prisoners in the custody of the prison authorities, giving them priority with regard to transfers to newly-opened prisons.

Torture in Police Lockups

While the physical conditions of police lockups prove their unsuitability for anything more than short-term detention of arrested criminal suspects, the possibility-indeed the likelihood-of police torture provides an even more compelling reason to transfer inmates into the prison system as quickly as possible. As Human Rights Watch described in our very first report on Brazil, which focused on police precincts in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the "torture of ordinary suspects, not only by beatings, but by relatively sophisticated methods, is endemic."108 Police in Brazil routinely resort to torture as a means of interrogating suspected criminals.109

According to Brazilian human rights groups, a significant number of police precincts in Brazil, perhaps even a majority of them, include a torture room. This room is frequently called the sala de pau, or perch room, in reference to the torture technique most commonly employed by Brazilian police, the pau de arara, or parrot's perch. The parrot's perch is a bar on which the victim is suspended from the back of his knees, with his hands tied to his ankles. Once on the perch, the victim, usually stripped naked, is subjected to beatings, electric shocks, and near-drowning. Near-drowning, in turn, is a torture technique in which the victim's head is submerged in a tank of water, or water is forced into his mouth and nostrils. According to those who have undergone this form of torture, the experience produces a terrifying sensation of impending death.

In the course of this research, Human Rights Watch interviewed scores of prisoners who credibly described being subjected to torture during their initial detention in police precincts. An inmate in Manaus, Amazonas, convicted of drug smuggling, described how he was tortured in a police precinct by being hung upside-down for more than three hours and beaten with sticks until his ribs cracked.110 In São Paulo, inmates at the Depatri police facility described being brought upstairs to a torture room, having rags stuffed in their mouths, and being shocked on their ears and necks, and under their arms.111 But it was in the state of Minas Gerais that we heard the most consistent and compelling accounts of torture. Moreover, the detainees we interviewed there frequently remained for long periods in the precincts where they had suffered the abuse, enduring continuing contact with their torturers.

Minas Gerais: a case study of police torture

The Mayor's Office for Human Rights and Citizenship in Belo Horizonte (Coordenadoria de Direitos Humanos e Cidadania da Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte), the capital of Minas Gerais, reported in 1996 that:

The police in [Belo Horizonte] work almost exclusively outside of "formal," not to say "legal" limits. Arbitrary practices . . . [include] the systematic application of torture as a means of investigation. Thegovernment's policy of public security is one of "watch and punish," of explicit repression, of increase in the police apparatus and its ferocity.112

In interviews with Human Rights Watch during the same period, representatives of the mayor's human rights office stated they receive several credible complaints of torture each week.113 Indeed, between 1989 and 1996, the human rights division of the public prosecutor's office in Belo Horizonte indicted more than 500 civil police officers-nearly 15 percent of the force-for battery or abuse of authority.114 During 1994 to 1996 alone, the division filed 439 indictments against civil police officers and 116 indictments against military police officers for such crimes.115

In April 1997, a special commission of the Minas Gerais State Legislative Assembly that was charged with investigating abuses within the penal system visited thirteen of the state's police lockups. During these visits, the commission took numerous statements from victims of torture and other physical abuse. In the Special Operations Department (Departamento de Operações Especiais, DEOESP),for example, the commission interviewed prisoners who had been tortured in a room known as the "little church"(igrejinha). One of the detainees at the DEOESP volunteered to show the commission exactly where the igrejinha was located, and led commission members, accompanied by a cameraman from the legislative assembly, to the room. What they found was:

[just] as the prisoners had described it: a room with tiled walls, with exposed electrical wires, several electrical outlets, pipes with running water . . . . Two grooves or holes were observed in the locale: one in the wall, just below the shower and another in a half-wall located on the opposite side and at the same height as the [one in the wall]. In another room, a metal bar was located which, when placed in these grooves, fit perfectly. According to the prisoners, it is with this bar that torture sessions known as "parrot's perch" occur. In this apparatus, the prisoner is hung, with his feet and hands tied, and receives electric shocks.116

The DEOESP was not the only police precinct in which the Minas Gerais legislative commission documented instances of physical abuse and torture; members of the commission told Human Rights Watch that they also had serious concerns regarding torture at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct in Belo Horizonte.117 During our March 1998 visit to Minas Gerais, Human Rights Watch visited this facility, speaking to a number of victims of torture. Inmates at other facilities who had previously been held at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct gave additional testimony.

One victim gave the following description of his treatment by police there:

I was tortured several times [at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct]. The torture room there is next to the garage. They use a saw-horse with a metal bar connecting the two sides, and a tire underneath it for when they pull the bar out. They beat me, gave me electric shocks, and drowned me. After that, they made me participate in reconstituting the crime the way they saidit happened. When they were torturing me, they asked me to turn in more people.118

Like the above account, prisoners' descriptions of torture at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct generally included the following elements: the person to be tortured was stripped naked and placed over a bar suspended between two supports, often with a rubber tire underneath. The person's hands and feet were tied together and he was hung with the back of his knees in contact with the bar and his head hanging close to the ground. At the end of the session, the torturers often pulled the bar out from between the two supports, allowing the tire to cushion the fall of the torture victim. The torture sessions consisted of beatings, electric shocks, and near-drowning. According to numerous sources, torture is practiced in a room designated for that purpose located close to the garage entry into the precinct, near the "triage" center of the police lockup. The room itself has white tiled walls and, midway across it, a half-wall about three feet high.119

One detainee told Human Rights Watch about his own torture and the torture of others:

When I arrived I was taken to that room that's filled with chairs now. It was on September 18, 1997, about 10:30 a.m. The whole team-about eight men-put me on the perch. I was already naked. They went and got the saw-horse and put a metal bar across it. Then they put me on the bar-the perch. They wanted me to give them the names of the other guys involved. They tortured me there for about twenty minutes.

When someone is being tortured everyone knows. You can hear the screams. Any problem, like setting a fire in the cell, trying to escape, and you get the perch. Except today, because you're here. Since I've been here they've taken guys from the lockup out to the perch room three times.

Another detainee at the precinct showed Human Rights Watch open wounds on his head from police beatings and described the torture room in detail:

I have been taken to the torture room twice since I've been here. The first time was two weeks after I arrived. The second time was about twenty days after I got here. Both times they hung me on a metal bar on top of a saw-horse. They gave me electric shocks and beat me with a rubber stick. They put the shocks all over my body, on my testicles, my anus.

A female detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct explained that torture sessions are not limited to the male detainees:

They tortured me when they brought me in. It was in that room down by the triage part of the lockup. I was naked. First they put me on the perch and they wet me. Then they beat me and gave me electric shocks. Everywhere. On my vagina. There were about four men torturing me . . . . I saw death in front of me.

This woman's nightmare did not end when the police stopped torturing her. When we met her, her cell was located on the wing closest to the torture room. She told us: "From my cell, I can hear the screams of the torture sessions. The torture room is near the `corró' cell. They torture people there every day."

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about reports of torture at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct. By all accounts, the practice has been going on for years. Human Rights Watch took statements describing torture that occurred over a period of several years. A prisoner with whom we spoke at the Department of Investigations (DI) precinct, who has been held in police lockups since 1995, described a torture session at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct that had taken place nearly three years earlier:

I was arrested in May 1995 and taken to Thefts and Robberies. I was processed in the fifth precinct [within the Thefts and Robberies complex] by Delegate Marcos Aurélio. He was the precinct chief in charge. The group that tortured me was led by Breno. There was another guy who's bald named Max and Marquinhos on that team. They took me to the perch room several times. It's on the ground level. There's a little half-wall in there and the room is white. They would hang me on the perchand nearly drown me and give me electric shocks all over: on my head, on my penis.

Other prisoners described nearly identical torture sessions occurring years before that. One inmate, who spoke to us at the Nelson Hungria Penitentiary, spoke of torture he had endured at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct nearly six years earlier in the same room and using the same techniques described by prisoners at the precinct during our March 1998 visit. He explained:

I was in Thefts and Robberies in 1992 and 1993. When you come in from the garage, there's a room with a little wall inside. The walls have tiles on them. They have a perch in there with a tire underneath. The tire's there so you don't hit the floor when they take you off the perch. I was tortured there, sometimes with an electric shock machine. They would put these clips on you and then wind up a little machine and that's how they shocked you. Now they use wires.

They got me to confess to a lot of crimes. I even signed confessions in crimes that I didn't even know about just to stop suffering the torture.120

A Buffer to the Prison System

In some states, particularly São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the levels of overcrowding are much less severe in the prisons than in the police lockups. Facilities under the control of São Paulo's Secretariat of Public Security held an average of 3.1 prisoners per available space in 1996, at the same time that those within the Secretariat of Prison Administration held an average of 1.3 prisoners per available space.121 In Minas Gerais, while "all of the lockups of the police stations were in a desperate state of overcrowding," the prison system was, in fact, filled to substantially less than capacity.122 To an extent, the lesser overcrowding of prisonscompared to lockups is surprising, as prison inmates generally have more activities, more possibilities for work, and more out-of-cell time than do their counterparts in police lockups; in other words, high levels of overcrowding are easier for prison inmates to bear.

Yet the reason for this general rule is simple: a powder keg of 1,000 angry inmates presents much more danger than a powder keg of only one hundred of them. Prison authorities know that when large penal facilities get out of control, the costs may be extremely high; even in the best of circumstances large facilities are more difficult to manage than smaller ones. (It is likely that this concern, among others, underlies the Standard Minimum Rules' recommendation that prisons hold no more than 500 inmates.) As a high official in São Paulo's public security secretariat stated, in explaining why the secretariat has not tried to pressure the prison system to accept more inmates: "There are limits to how much you can crowd a prison. They can really explode."123

The disparity between prison overcrowding and police lockup overcrowding also has a basis in political factors. Although the situation varies from state to state, in some states the prison system is granted the power to control the transfer of prisoners out of police lockups. In other words, the prison system can limit the number of inmates it accepts (in contrast to police lockups, which cannot refuse to hold people as they are arrested). In São Paulo, for example, the public security secretariat can only transfer someone into the prison system when the prison system has space for new arrivals. Every week, therefore, the prison secretariat informs the public security secretariat of the number of available prison spaces.124 In Rio Grande do Norte, where the prison system has not historically had the power to control the number of incoming prisoners, a high justice official who was attempting to introduce this power called it "the most important part" of a pending reform package.125 He acknowledged, however, that allowing such control might simply shift the prison system's overcrowding problems to the police.

Testing the Limits of Overcrowding

Although the effects may be less destructive than in the prisons, police lockups can explode as well. In 1997, the worst year on record for such incidents, there were 195 rebellions in facilities under the control of São Paulo's publicsecurity secretariat, as compared to seventy-one the previous year.126 These incidents were sparked by various factors-sometimes they began as thwarted escape attempts, sometimes as protests over poor conditions-but one of the most common reasons was overcrowding. Over and again during the course of the year, prisoners in São Paulo's jammed police lockups rioted for the right to be transferred to a less crowded prison.

The Itanhaém jail in São Paulo, for example, held 213 inmates in space for thirty-two when a riot broke out there in February 1997. Demanding transfers to the prison system, or to less crowded jails, the prisoners at Itanhaém refused to return to their cells at the end of the day. Several days later, transfers had reduced their numbers to 180, still over five times the facility's capacity. "They live like animals," acknowledged the director of the jail, where inmates each had about two and a half square feet (0.5 square meter) of space.127

A more dangerous incident was sparked by overcrowding at São Paulo's sixty-fourth police precinct in June 1997, when a group of convicted prisoners took a guard hostage as he brought in breakfast in the morning. Brandishing homemade knives, the inmates threatened to kill the guard if they were not transferred. The lockup held sixty-nine inmates in space for twenty; negotiations with the authorities finally resulted in the transfer of seven of them to the State Penitentiary.128

What the Future Holds

Given the chaos and bedlam of so many lockups, it is not surprising that police officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch were unhappy about being responsible for so many prisoners. Indeed, many precinct-level police officers complained vociferously about their guard duties. "These prisoners aren't our responsibility; they shouldn't be here," said the commander of São Paulo's ninth police precinct, in a typical comment. "But 70 to 80 percent of our time here isspent taking care of them."129 Others uniformly echoed this sentiment, pointing out that the time they spent handling inmate matters detracted from their mission of investigating and solving crime.

Higher officials, while still not enthusiastic about the situation, seemed more resigned to it. In São Paulo, a high public security official described the secretariat's plans to build three new public jails with much larger capacities than lockups to handle the burgeoning inmate population.130 Increasing the secretariat's total holding capacity would, of course, further institutionalize the de facto arrangement of long-term police custody of prisoners. (Although the fact that the public security secretariat already manages eight large jails, each with capacity for more than 500 inmates, is evidence that it acceded to this arrangement years ago.) The official acknowledged, however, that even the largest public jails make no provision for inmates to work or study, and are a poor substitute for prisons.

As described previously, São Paulo's recent expansion in prison capacity has allowed the state, at least for a time, to reduce the number of inmates held by the public security secretariat. After years of growth in the inmate population of police precincts, this is an important step forward. Yet many thousands of prisoners-from 15,000 to 20,000 of them-will remain in police hands for the foreseeable future.

The Counterexample: Rio Grande do Sul

Not every state in Brazil violates the national prison law by keeping prisoners in police lockups for long periods of time. In Rio Grande do Sul, most notably, prisoners spend no more than a few days in police custody before transfer to the prison system. It seems that sometime in the late 1970s, the judge responsible for police matters barred pretrial detainees from remaining in lockups, and since then the general rule has been respected.131 The state of Amapá also reportedly does not keep prisoners in police lockups.132

103 At the end of October 1998, a total of 32,478 inmates were held in facilities operated by São Paulo's Secretariat of Public Security. Fax from Luiz Antônio Alves de Souza, Adjunct Secretary of Public Security, to Human Rights Watch, October 30, 1998. A few thousand inmates had, however, recently been transferred to newly-inaugurated facilities within the prison system, and some 11,000 more transfers were supposed to take place during the next few months. Nonetheless, as these numbers indicate, from fifteen to twenty thousand inmates will remain in police hands.

104 Minas Gerais 1997 CPI report, p. 36.

105 See ICCPR, art. 10(2)(a); American Convention, art. 5(4).

106 Human Rights Watch interview, Darcy Sassi, São Paulo, November 19, 1997.

107 Human Rights Watch interview, Luiz Antônio Alves de Souza, adjunct secretary, Secretaria de Estado dos Negócios da Segurança Pública, São Paulo, January 8, 1998; Minas Gerais 1997 CPI report, p. 36; Human Rights Watch interview, Judge Georges Lopes Leite, Brasília, December 18, 1997. Human Rights Watch does not have comprehensive figures with regard to this issue for the state of Rio de Janeiro, which has the country's second-largest inmate population, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the proportions are equally unacceptable. See, for example, Célia Costa, "Uma fuga que já era esperada," O Globo, May 19, 1998 (noting that of 356 inmates confined in one police precinct, ninety, or 25 percent of the total, were convicted).

108 Americas Watch (now the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch), Police Abuse in Brazil: Summary Executions and Torture in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (New York: Human Rights Watch, November 1987), p. 9.

109 See Human Rights Watch/Americas, Police Brutality in Urban Brazil, pp. 28-31; Human Rights Watch/Americas, "Fighting Violence with Violence: Criminality and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 2(B) January 1996; Americas Watch, "The Killings in Candelária and Vigário Geral: The Urgent Need to Police the Brazilian Police," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 5, no. 11, November 1993; Human Rights Watch/Americas, Final Justice: Police and Death Squad Homicides of Adolescents in Brazil (New York: Human Rights Watch, February 1994); Americas Watch and the Center for the Study of Violence, "Urban Police Violence in Brazil: Torture and Police Killings in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro after Five Years," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 5, no. 5, May 1993.

110 Human Rights Watch interview, Penitenciária Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa, Manaus, Amazonas, December 16, 1997.

111 Human Rights Watch interviews, Depatri, São Paulo, November 24, 1997.

112 Human Rights and Citizenship Division, Office of the Mayor of Belo Horizonte, Dossiê Violência Policial, Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, March 1996), p. 3 (translation by Human Rights Watch).

113 Human Rights Watch interview, members of the Human Rights and Citizenship Division, Office of the Mayor of Belo Horizonte, March 28, 1996.

114 Until April 1997, when torture was codified as a distinct crime in the Brazilian penal code, torture cases were typically prosecuted under the legal prohibitions on battery or abuse of authority. In cases involving minors, however, prosecutors were able to rely upon an article in the Children's and Adolescents' Statute that criminalizes torture when committed against persons under the age eighteen. See Law No. 8.069/90, art. 233. The human rights division of the public prosecutor's office used this provision to convict six civil police officers involved in the torture of a minor on April 13, 1993. See Sentence, Criminal Appeal No. 54.187/0, State Appellate Court, Belo Horizonte, August 30, 1996.

115 Human Rights Division, Public Prosecutor's Office, "Indictments Against Military and Civil Police in the Ordinary Courts 1994, 1995, and 1996," Belo Horizonte, February 3, 1997. Because some police officers are the subject of more than one indictment, the number of police officers against whom indictments have been filed is somewhat less than these figures suggest. Although crimes committed by military police are ordinarily prosecuted in military courts, prosecutions for the crime of abuse of authority, which does not exist in the Military Criminal Code, may be filed against military police officers in the ordinary courts.

116 1997 Minas Gerais CPI report, p. 92 (translation by Human Rights Watch). Human Rights Watch viewed the CPI's video and also spoke with prisoners who described the igrejinha at the DEOESP in similar terms.

117 Human Rights Watch interview, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, March 12, 1998.

118 Human Rights Watch interview, Penitenciária Nelson Hungria, Nova Contagem, Minas Gerais, March 18, 1998.

119 During his March 1998 visit to the Thefts and Robberies Precinct, Human Rights Watch's Brazil office director James Cavallaro entered a room that matched the description given by numerous prisoners, thus corroborating their physical description of it. Shortly after Cavallaro entered, a visibly upset jailer insisted that he leave, closing the door behind him.

120 Human Rights Watch interview, Penitenciária Nelson Hungria, Nova Contagem, Minas Gerais, March 18, 1998.

121 Ouvidoria de Polícia, Relatório Anual de Prestação de Contas da Ouvidoria da Polícia, 1996, p. 98.

122 Minas Gerais 1997 CPI report, p. 45. In April 1997, the prisons' capacity (not counting damaged cells) was 3,008 places, but only 2,308 inmates were being held. Ibid., p. 47.

123 Human Rights Watch interview, Luiz Antônio Alves, January 8, 1998.

124 Ibid.

125 Human Rights Watch interview, Flávio Hebron, Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, December 13, 1997.

126 "Rebeliões bateram recorde em SP no ano passado," Folha de S. Paulo, March 17, 1998 (citing statistics provided by the public security secretariat).

127 Adriana Bruno, "`Presos vivem como bichos', diz director," Folha de S. Paulo, February 22, 1997.

128 "Presos do 64º DP fazem motim," Folha de S. Paulo, July 12, 1997. As of November 20, 1997, the lockup held seventy-four inmates. São Paulo Lockup and Jail Statistics, p. 2.

129 Human Rights Watch interview, Ivanete Oliveira Velloso, precinct chief, São Paulo, November 24, 1997.

130 Human Rights Watch interview, Luiz Antônio Alves, January 8, 1998.

131 Human Rights Watch interview, Judge Marco Antônio Scapini, December 1, 1997.

132 Conselho Nacional de Política Criminal e Penitenciária, "Relatório Circunstanciado da visita da Inspeção feita em Estabelecimentos Penais nos Estados do Amazonas, Amapá e Roraima," July 7, 1998.

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