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Behind Bars in Brazil

V. Physical Conditions

        Basic Characteristics
        Living Conditions
        Light, Ventilation, and Temperature
        Bedding and Clothing
        Water and Hygiene


Brazilian prisoners are too often forced to endure appalling daily living conditions in the country's prisons, jails and police lockups. Because of overcrowding, many of them sleep on the floor of their cells, sometimes in the bathroom next to the hole that serves as a toilet. In the most crowded facilities, where there is no free space even on the floor, prisoners sleep tied to the cell bars or hanging in suspended hammocks. Most penal facilities are physically deteriorated, some are severely so.

Forced to provide their own mattresses, bedding, clothing and toiletries, many prisoners are dependent on the support of their families or others outside the prison. The struggle for space, and the authorities' failure to provide basic provisions in many facilities, leads to prisoner-on-prisoner exploitation, as prisoners who lack money and family support are victimized by others.

Basic Characteristics of Penal Facilities

As evidenced by centuries of innovation in prison architecture, the size and shape of a prison can have a significant impact on its functioning. Bad prison design comes in many forms, of course-there are dark and dreary buildings with little ventilation, and buildings with hidden corners that are difficult to monitor-but one simple error is in making prisons too large.133 As a general rule of thumb, the Standard Minimum Rules recommend that prisons hold no more than 500 inmates.134

Brazil's penal facilities run the gamut of sizes, shapes, and layouts. In São Paulo, the Carandiru prison complex includes Latin America's largest prison, the Casa de Detenção, which held 6,508 inmates in seven different pavilions on the daywe visited it. 135 Other prisons of over 1,000 inmates include the State Penitentiary in São Paulo; the Central Prison of Porto Alegre and the State Penitentiary of Jacuí, both in the state of Rio Grande do Sul; the Center for Internment and Reeducation, in Brasília, and the Professor Barreto Campelo prison, in Pernambuco. Most of Brazil's prisons, however, are much smaller, holding several hundred inmates, while most women's prisons hold fewer than a hundred.

The larger prisons tend to have more than a single story: several pavilions in the Casa de Detenção, for example, are five stories tall. While each of the pavilions in the Casa de Detenção is built around a central courtyard, with a self-enclosed square or rectangular

layout, it is more common in Brazil to find prisons laid out using long corridors lined on each side with cells and dormitories. A few unusual design schemes exist as well. The Raimundo Vidal Pessoa Penitentiary, in Manaus, Amazonas, is built on a radial plan, a style that was common in the early part of the century, the era from which it dates.

At the other extreme of size are the thousands of police lockups around the country, some of which have only one small cell, though others hold a hundred or more prisoners. In São Paulo, a common layout found in medium-sized police lockups is that of a covered patio flanked by two or three communal cells on each side. The smaller lockups, however, lack a patio: they simply contain four small cells on an interior hall.

Living Conditions and the Impact of Overcrowding

The national prison law mandates that inmates be held in individual cells of at least six square meters (approximately sixty-five square feet) in size.136 In accordance with this rule, many of Brazil's prisons rely upon individual cells in all or a substantial part of their living areas. Nonetheless, except for a few prisons such as the Charqueadas High Security Prison in Rio Grande do Sul and the Nelson Hungria Penitentiary in Minas Gerais, overcrowding has overruled the designers' plans: rather than holding a single prisoner, the individual cells are used communally, by two or more inmates. Besides individual cells, most prisons alsohave larger cells or dormitories that were specifically designed for group living. Police lockups generally have small to medium-sized cells designed for five to ten inmates.

Many penal facilities, and thus many inmates' cells and dormitories, are two to five times as crowded as they were designed to be. In some facilities, the overcrowding has reached inhuman levels, with inmates jammed together in crowds. The densely packed housing areas in these places offered Human Rights Watch researchers such sights as prisoners tied to windows to lessen the demand for floor space, and prisoners forced to sleep on top of hole-in-the-floor toilets. Such overcrowding also generates filth, bad smells, and vermin, which in turn exacerbate tensions among prisoners. Inmates are responsible for keeping their living quarters clean and, obviously, some do a better job than others: the more crowded the cell, the more difficult the task.

As mentioned previously, the overcrowding is generally most acute in police lockups. Human Rights Watch inspected São Paulo's seventy-eighth police precinct, for example, and found eighty prisoners divided among four small cells. According to official capacity figures provided by the public security secretariat, this lockup was designed to hold twenty inmates, making it four times as crowded as it should have been.137 In every cell, besides prisoners squeezed together on the floor, we found five to seven prisoners hanging from ropes in the air. Even though the bathrooms were tiny, two or three prisoners in each cell slept there. The overcrowding was so extreme that it was hard to imagine that the facility could have crammed in sixteen additional inmates just a few months earlier, but that is what we were informed.

A prisoner who had passed through the overcrowded Thefts and Robberies Precinct in Minas Gerais described its physical conditions in these terms:

Everything is dirty and infested. There are little bugs there-muquirana-that live in your clothes and make your skin itch all night. It's impossible to sleep. Every Friday they have a "geral" (full search). There is a big patio there. Everyone is forced to strip naked and wait in the patio, often in the cold. They turn on a hose and wash down everything. But it doesn't keep the bugs away.138

The police lockups Human Rights Watch visited were all extremely overcrowded, but we at least found that the physical infrastructure of most of them was in good condition. Some prisons that are nearly as packed as the lockups are also physically decayed by heavy use and no repairs. The most shocking facility we saw, in combining overcrowding and rotten infrastructure, was the Central Prison of Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. With an official capacity of 600 places, it held 1,803 prisoners on the day we visited and had held up to 2,040 during the previous year.139

The prisoners' living areas were in an advanced state of decay. Not only was crumbling concrete, peeling paint, and broken flooring much in evidence, but the plumbing and electrical systems were also seriously damaged. In many cells we found that prisoners had rigged together elaborate contraptions made of plastic to drain away the water that leaked from the ceiling, which ranged from the occasional drip to, in one cell, a steady stream. A wall in one hall covered with moss evidenced a similar pipe breakage. Bare strands of electical wire ran about the ceilings and down the walls, a clear fire hazard. One gallery gave off a strong smell of sewage. As in many facilities, the toilets did not flush.

In this prison, as in others, the distribution of living space is relatively unregulated, which means that the burden of overcrowding falls disproportionately on certain prisoners. That is, some cells overflow with inmates while others are more sparsely populated. In general, prisoners who are poorer, weaker, and less powerful tend to live in correspondingly less habitable accommodations.

In all prisons, the most cramped and uncomfortable areas are the disciplinary and holding (triagem) cells, which are as likely to hold prisoners needing protection from other prisoners as they are to hold those being punished. An appalling example of this is the fifth floor of pavilion five of São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, where conditions are exceptionally miserable and subhuman. The 356 prisoners assigned to a special section of the fifth floor, all of whom desired transfer to other prisons, were living there under a status labeled "preventive measure of security." To the guards and other prisoners, however, they are known simply as the "yellow ones": the prisoners who stay locked in their cells (and thus whose skin turns yellow from lack of exposure to the sun).140

Eight prisoners were crammed into a typical single-person cell in this section, although a few cells held ten. The air in these gloomy chambers was thickwith carbon dioxide and body odor. In some cells, prisoners tied themselves to the barred windows to save space and to breathe fresh air. Broken squat toilets were located by the door of the cells without even a partition to shield them, leaving prisoners to defecate before an audience of six or eight cellmates. The walls and floors of the cells are of dark, dingy concrete whose paint wore off long ago.

One prisoner described life in the yellow section to us:141

We sleep with one guy in a hammock and the other nine on the floor. The bald guy has AIDS and asked to be transferred but was refused. We've got four foam cushions. There are days when they shut the water off. Then there's no water for the whole day. When we complain about almost anything, we get beaten. Five months ago we complained about the lack of water. It was in May. Five guards came in and took us downstairs. They stripped off our clothes and beat us with an iron pipe.

Light, Ventilation, and Temperature

Since Brazil enjoys a warm climate, most of its prisons are not sealed; instead the cells or corridors have barred windows that allow in light and air. Ventilation is good in most facilities, although a few areas lack windows, and when these areas are overcrowded they become noxious with a lack of air and an abundance of vile smells. Again, punishment and holding cells tend to be the most poorly ventilated.

Several housing areas in São Paulo's Casa de Detenção have notably poor ventilation due to the use of metal plates (called chapas) to cover cell windows and protect prisoners from attack by their enemies. The punishment areas on the ground floor of pavilions four and five, and the secure area on the fifth floor of pavilion six both use these plates, which, although they have air holes in them, greatly reduce the entry of light and air. Since these cells also tend to be extremely overcrowded, the risk of inmates infecting each other with tuberculosis and other diseases is extremely high.

One entire facility in São Paulo is almost completely closed to air and sunlight: the Depatri police facility near Carandiru. With its four cell wings located on the bottom floor of a multi-story building, having only a couple of small windows on one end of a corridor, the building is dimly lit and very stuffy.

Human Rights Watch found dark punishment cells at the State Penitentiary of Campina Grande, in Paraíba, at the Dr. João Chaves CentralPenitenciary in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, and at the Penitentiary Raimundo Vidal Pessoa, in Manaus, Amazonas. The four punishment cells at the Natal facility were not entirely dark, as some light could enter through their barred gates, but were so damp and crumbling that they gave the distinct impression of a medieval torture chamber. The punishment area of pavilion four of the Casa de Detenção, better known among inmates and prison staff as the "dungeon," receives almost no sunlight, and prisoners there stated that up until a few days before our visit they had spent six days in the dark, as the single light fixture in the cell had no bulb.

We heard few complaints about temperature extremes, but it is clear that some facilities become incredibly hot in the summer, given the combination of high ambient temperatures and crowded cells. In Rio de Janeiro, two prisoners died of heat exhaustion in police lockups in early 1998 due to these factors.142

Bedding and Clothing

The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules require that each inmate be assigned a "separate bed" and be provided with "separate and sufficient bedding which shall be clean when issued, kept in good order and changed often enough to ensure its cleanliness."143 Brazil's penal facilities are, to judge from the examples we visited, almost uniformly not in compliance with these requirements.

In the vast majority of men's facilities visited by Human Rights Watch, inmates sleep on foam mattresses provided by family members or purchased from other inmates.144 Many prisons and police lockups have built-in concrete beds, sometimes bunk beds, although in most such facilities the inmate population far exceeds the number of beds available, leaving many to sleep on the floor. At the Depatri police facility in São Paulo, for example, a typical cell had eleven inmates sleeping in beds and eleven on the floor. At the Thefts and Robberies Precinct in Minas Gerais, all prisoners sleep on the floor, many just on blankets.

Inmates in Brazil's penal facilities wear their own clothing: whatever they are arrested in, to begin with, and then whatever their families bring them or they buy. There is almost no provision for government-issued clothing, even for prisoners who need it, except in a few women's facilities. Overall, nonetheless, most prisoners are adequately clothed and most wear serviceable though worn shoes.


Inmates in Brazil generally receive minimally adequate food rations, though hardly lavish ones.145 Unlike some other Latin American prisons, no facility we that we visited in Brazil fails to provide food to its inmates, and in none did inmates complain of hunger. We did, however, hear allegations involving corruption and the uneven distribution of food in several prisons, as well as numerous complaints about food quality.

Prisoners at the Manaus central prison, in the state of Amazonas, described how the "sheriffs"-the powerful inmates-receive specially cooked meals from the prison kitchen that include all the best pieces of meat, while normal prisoners eat poorly. They acknowledged nonetheless that with the change of prison administration last year the food had generally improved.

Corruption and pilfering of food led authorities at São Paulo's Casa de Detenção to close its kitchen in early 1996 and instead rely on a private company to deliver prepared meals to prisoners. Before the switch was made to private catering, a significant amount of the food that was allocated to prisoners was actually sold outside of the prison.146 As in Manaus, there also used to be problems involving the unequal division of food among prisoners; the delivery of identical containers of food resolves that issue. The cost of this service is eight reais (approximately U.S. $7) per prisoner per day.

In some facilities, inmates rely on family members to bring them nearly all their food or to give them money to buy food. At Natal's main prison, for example, inmates said that about 15 percent of the prison population received most of their meals from family members. In some prisons, inmates are allowed to usehot plates or makeshift stoves to prepare food in their cells, although in others such appliances are banned.

Prisoners who can afford it supplement their diets by buying food from prisoner-run canteens. We saw several such canteens in the Natal prison, for example, stocking a wide range of items that included soft drinks, bottled water, beans, corn meal, cooking oil, cigarettes, and candy.

Most prisons lack trays and other serving utensils. Prisoners serve themselves using their own utensils, such as plastic food containers.

Kitchen facilities, like the rest of the physical plant, were often old and in disrepair. The areas where food was stored were often dirty and, according to prisoners' reports, infested with vermin.

Water and Hygiene

The sanitary facilities in some men's prisons violate international standards.147 Although almost all prisoners have access to a toilet, the toilets are often broken or their drains blocked up, giving bathrooms a terrible stench. In some prisons, inmates complained of only sporadic running water. At Natal's Central Penitentiary, for example, inmates stated that the water only comes on for a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening.

The showers in many prisons and police lockups consist only of a pipe coming out of the wall, without hot water or a shower head. In almost every facility we visited, however, prisoners had improved this set-up, either by adding a commercial shower head or, more commonly, by rigging up an electrical wire so that the water is heated as it flows out of the pipe.

Article 15 of the Standard Minimum Rules requires that inmates keep their persons clean and imposes on prison authorities the obligation of providing inmates "such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness." Few men's penal facililies provide inmates with toiletries or other supplies, however; these too are generally supplied by family members. In Brasília, an exception in this respect, inmates are given toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste. Women's prisons also generally provide their inmates with these basic items. Inmates in São Paulo'sCasa de Detenção told us that toilet paper and cleaning supplies are generally available in the three pavilions housing prisoners who work, but that the remaining pavilions are not normally provided these supplies.

133 As one expert on prison architecture put it: "While a small prison is not certain to be successful, a large one is sure to be unsuccessful." Norman Johnson, The Human Cage (New York: Walker and Co., 1973). Concurring with this position, São Paulo's secretary of prisons told us that he firmly believed in using smaller prisons-that large prisons "don't function." Human Rights Watch interview, João Benedicto de Azevedo Marques, São Paulo, November 26, 1997. With this in mind, he has been building multiple medium-sized prisons in São Paulo, most of which hold from 792 to 852 inmates, rather than a few giant ones.

134 Standard Minimum Rules, art. 61.

135 With the inauguration of a number of new prisons in São Paulo in late 1998, several thousand prisoners were transferred out of the Casa de Detenção. Making up for these reductions, however, was the fact that the facility was being used as a waystation for prisoners being transferred to the interior of the state, so that as of late October 1998 the net change in inmate numbers there was minimal. Fax from Luiz Antônio Alves de Souza, Adjunct Secretary of Public Security, to Human Rights Watch, October 30, 1998.

136 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 220.

137 Human Rights Watch interview, Ricardo Arantes Cestari, assistant commander, seventy-eighth precinct, São Paulo, November 19, 1997; São Paulo lockup and jail statistics, p. 3.

138 Human Rights Watch interview, Itauna, Minas Gerais, March 14, 1998.

139 Human Rights Watch interview, Humberto de Sá Garay, operational director, Central Prison, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, December 1, 1997.

140 See Letter from the Prisoners in the Secure Cells and Isolation in the "Yellow Section" of Pavilion 5, São Paulo, June 15, 1998.

141 Human Rights Watch interview, November 28, 1997.

142 "Calor de 50 graus mata 2 presos em delegacias do Rio," O Globo, February 6, 1998.

143 Standard Minimum Rules, art. 19.

144 Brasília's prison system is one of the exceptions in that inmates are provided with a mattress, a sheet, and a blanket. Human Rights Watch interview, various inmates, Centro de Internamento e Reeducação, Complexo Penitenciário, Brasília, December 18, 1997.

145 Article 20(1) of the Standard Minimum Rules outlines the basic requirements for prison food service: "Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for the health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served."

146 Human Rights Watch interview, Walter Erwin Hoffgen, director, Casa de Detenção, São Paulo, November 28, 1997.

147 The Standard Minimum Rules require that sanitary installations be "adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner"; that "[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided" to enable every prisoner to bathe "at a temperature suitable to the climate, as frequently as necessary for general hygiene . . . but at least once a week"; and that all areas normally used by prisoners be "kept scrupulously clean at all times." Standard Minimum Rules, arts. 12-14.

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