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Behind Bars in Brazil

IX. Prisoners' Contacts
with the Outside World



By keeping prisoners physically isolated from outsiders, incarceration naturally strains family ties and friendships, promoting the loss of contact and the breakup of relationships. Besides the adverse affect this has on prisoners' psychological well-being while confined, it also bodes poorly for their future readjustment to life outside. It is critical, given these concerns, that the prison system not further exacerbate prisoners' isolation beyond that which is inherent to incarceration. Instead of creating impediments to prisoners' contacts with outsiders, the burden is on the prison system to facilitate such contacts.33

In Brazil's prisons, the limited resources available to inmates provide another, more practical reason for prison authorities to assist prisoners in maintaining family ties. Without their families, prisoners would lack much-needed material support. In many instances, it falls to prisoners' families to supply bedding, clothing, medicine and hygenic items, among other things.

Prison authorities are able to hinder inmates' relations with their family and friends through both direct and indirect means. Direct restrictions might include limited visiting hours, bans on correspondence, and restrictions regarding who is permitted to visit. Brazilian penal facilities, by and large, do not impose many such restrictions; their visiting policies, in particular, tend to be generous. Yet certain indirect restrictions on prisoners' outside contacts are more common in Brazil. The primary problem in this respect is the humiliating treatment of inmates' visitors, which occurs to varying degrees in many penal facilities.

The Problem of Distance

In a country as large as Brazil, the issue of prisoners' distance from their families must be considered. If family members have to travel long distances to visit their incarcerated kin, then visits are likely to be infrequent.

In this respect, Brazil's system of state control of prisons is of benefit because prisoners normally remain in the state in which they live. (Prisoners who have committed crimes in other states, however, are not favored under this system.) Travel distances may nonetheless be imposing even within the boundaries of a single state, particularly given the poverty of most prisoners and their families andthe size of many Brazilian states. Human Rights Watch heard a number of complaints from prisoners who were originally from the rural interior of a state but were confined in a prison within the city and who, accordingly, received few visits. Judges in the interior of some states are reportedly reluctant to transfer prisoners into the prison system upon conviction, because to remove them from the local jail and place them in a central prison would essentially cut them off from family support.34

Police and prison authorities often rely on prisoners' desire to remain near to their families as a disciplinary tool, threatening rebellious or disruptive prisoners with transfers to more remote facilities. In São Paulo's police lockups, this is one of the primary means of controlling prisoners.

Visiting Policies

Inmate visiting policies vary from state to state and from facility to facility in Brazil. The national prison law specifically includes visits in its enumerated list of prisoners' rights, stating that a prisoner has the right to visits from his "spouse, girlfriend, relatives, and friends."35 It does permit visits to be suspended as a disciplinary sanction, however.36

The importance inmates place on staying in contact with family and friends is evidenced by, among other things, the frequency with which more generous visiting policies are called for during prison rebellions. One of the central demands made by inmates rioting in 1994 and again in 1997 at the central prisonin Manaus, Amazonas, was longer visiting hours. A short list of negotiating points released by prisoners during a July 1997 riot at Roger prison in João Pessoa, Paraíba, included the demand that visits "be held Wednesdays and Sundays from 8:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m."37 Similarly, the cancellation of visits is sometimes sufficient to spark rioting.38 In general, prisoners want more visits, longer visits, more visitors, and better treatment of them.

Most penal facilities have one or more visiting days per week during which visitors may enter for several hours. In general, visiting policies tend to be more liberal in the prisons, which have greater infrastructure for accommodating them, than in the police lockups. Most prisons have two visiting days per week, often Wednesday and Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday. In some facilities, a weekday is designated for conjugal visits, while a weekend day is for visits with friends and family members. Children are generally allowed to visit their incarcerated parents once a month, on a special visiting day.

Visiting hours vary, but generally visitors enjoy at least a few hours with prisoners, and in many prisons visitors are permitted to stay for nearly the entire day. São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, the largest prison in the country, has more limited visiting hours, however: prisoners are permitted a half-day of visits per week (the particular day and time depends on which pavilion a prisoner lives in). On the last weekend of the month, prisoners there are allowed visitors on both days. Around the Christmas holidays, when visits are more frequent, the facility receives up to 30,000 visitors each weekend.39

Police lockups generally receive visitors one day a week for two to four hours. Until recently, however, inmates confined at the Thefts and Robberies Precinct in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais were not allowed visits at all; indeed, their insistence that this ban be lifted "was one of the most important demands that they presented to the [legislative delegation that investigated conditions there in1997]."40 After the legislative delegation's report was released, the facility revised the policy and began allowing brief visits once a week, though only of parents, wives and girlfriends.

In accordance with the national prison law, prisons generally allow visits from friends as well as family. Police lockups, in contrast, often restrict visitors to an inmate's relatives and spouse or companion, barring visits from friends. Some lockups are even extremely selective regarding which relatives qualify for visits, allowing parents but not cousins, for example.41 Lockups also tend to enforce stricter rules regarding the registration of visitors, requiring visitors to register in advance and receive special visiting cards. At the sixteenth police precinct, the commander told us that they even conduct an investigation to ensure that the proposed visitors are legitimate: "we have to watch out for prostitutes, you see."42

Most facilities, and particularly smaller facilities such as police lockups, have limits on the number of visitors a prisoner can receive on any given day. Often only two are allowed, but some prisons permit up to five. Given the size of many Brazilian families, the low limits imposed in some facilities can be onerous.

Few penal facilities have special areas for visits; instead, visitors are often allowed to enter directly into prisoners' living areas. In some prisons, such as São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, "social visits" with family and friends take place in the courtyard, while wives and girlfriends are allowed to enter prisoners' cells. This arrangement is fairly standard in São Paulo's police lockups. At some police facilities, such as the ninth police precinct and the Depatri lockup, prisoners and their male visitors are separated by bars or by a screen. To our knowledge, however, no penal facilities in Brazil employs plexiglass partitions-which completely preclude physical contact between the prisoner and his visitor-as are found in certain high security prisons in the United States and elsewhere.

All penal facilities have restrictions on the types of food and other items that visitors may bring to prisoners. Obviously illegal drugs are considered contraband in all facilities, as are guns, other weapons, tools such as drills, and alcohol. In addition, every facility has different rules regarding the entry of food, clothing, and personal items. In many police lockups, cooked food is barred: only packaged food and cookies are permitted. Visitors can generally bring in normalhygenic and cleaning supplies; indeed they are usually the only source for such items.

Conjugal visits

When questioned regarding what options he has for maintaining discipline, the commander of São Paulo's thirty-fifth police precinct did not miss a beat: "Visits. Their biggest worry is that you might cut off their girlfriends' visits."43 Conjugal visits are allowed on a regular basis in all of Brazil's male prisons and, to our knowledge, most of the country's police lockups.44 In general, conjugal visit policies for male prisoners in Brazil are extremely generous, although the degree of control exercised by the authorities over such visits varies somewhat from state to state.

The prisons impose few limitations regarding which prisoners are eligible for conjugal visits-commonly referred to as "intimate visits"-generally it is only prisoners in disciplinary or administrative segregation who are denied them. All other prisoners can usually receive conjugal visits, which last the same amount of time as regular visits, once a week.

There is greater variation regarding which visitors are eligible for conjugal visits. Some facilities register visitors and attempt to keep out prostitutes; some allow anyone; some limit conjugal visits to the prisoner's wife or stable female companion.45 The basic rule at the facilities run by the military police in Rio Grande do Sul is that the prisoner has to register his girlfriend and he can only be involved with one girlfriend at a time. Brasília limits conjugal visits to the prisoner's spouse or the woman that he lived with prior to being incarcerated (requiring some proof that the two lived together, such as a statement from their former neighbors).

Few men's facilities have separate conjugal visiting areas; instead, prisoners' living areas are used. (A couple of prisons that we visited had separateareas for conjugal visits at one time in the past, but the expansion in the inmate population meant that these were converted into regular living areas or, in one case, into disciplinary cells.) Particularly in light of the overcrowding of the prisons and lockups, lack of privacy is a serious concern. Inmates create their own private space as best they can, a challenging proposition in lockups that sleep forty to a cell. At São Paulo's seventieth police precinct, where inmates were forced to sleep sitting up because of the crowding, the police commander told us that the lack of space precluded conjugal visits. "We manage," said the inmates.46

An interesting innovation in some Brazilian prisons-generally those where the men's and women's facilities are adjacent to each other-is to allow conjugal visits between prisoners. Women incarcerated in the women's pavilion of the João Chaves prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte are allowed to visit the men's side of the prison once a week if their husband or serious boyfriend is held there. The women's prison of Manaus, Amazonas recently instituted a similar program, except that women inmates do not actually enter the men's prison; instead special cells marking the boundary between the two facilities are used.47 In Brasília, as well, the men's and women's prisons until recently allowed such visits, but the relocation of the women's prison in late 1997 to a more remote site put an end to this practice.

Prison wardens had no complaints regarding conjugal visits, concluding that, if anything, they eased tensions among prisoners and improved the atmosphere within the prison. The wardens of several prisons, including São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, emphasized to Human Rights Watch that conjugal visits were a critical defense against prison rape. "Before they were allowed, young prisoners were sold as sex slaves," explained one warden.48 Because our research methodology in Brazil was not specifically adapted to gauging the frequency of sexual abuse among Brazilian prisoners, we cannot confirm whether conjugal visitshave reduced or eliminated the problem. We do, nonetheless, tend to view such claims skeptically, since our investigation of the subject in other countries indicates that prison rape is less about sexual deprivation than it is about power and domination.49

Searches of visitors

Human Rights Watch heard a number of complaints about abuses against visitors, primarily involving the humiliating searches that visitors may undergo as a condition of entry.50 Rules regarding visitor searches varied a great deal from facility to facility, but the authorities everywhere voiced the same justification for them: that visitors bring in contraband, especially weapons and drugs. "What have we found? We've found marijuana hidden in coconuts, sacks of potatoes, the bottoms of tennis shoes . . . We've found cocaine in pant hems . . . . We found a bomb."51

To try to prevent such items from entering, prison authorities subject visitors and their belongings to meticulous searches. Some facilities employ pat-down searches in which the visitor remains clothed; some conduct strip searches; some do vaginal inspections. The one rule that seems to be uniformly applied is that male guards search male visitors and female guards search female visitors.

At the High Security Penitentiary in Charqueadas, Rio Grande do Sul, for example:

Male visitors have to take off all their clothes, which we search, and open their mouths and hands . . . then they squat, three times facing front and three times facing back . . . . Women have to take off their clothes and squat too; then they lie on the table andopen up their vaginal lips so the guards can see if anything is visible there . . . . Children up to age twelve just have to take off their clothes, and the clothes are searched. Searches of adolescents from twelve to sixteen are the same as those of adults, except they're accompanied by an adult responsible for them.52

At this facility, we were told that there are "no exceptions" to the rule of strip searches, not even for the ten registered visitors over sixty-five years old. In most other prisons, in contrast, the rules are more flexible. As the warden of the Campina Grande prison in Paraíba described it, "Some visitors get pat-down searches; some have to take off their clothes; it depends on whether the inmate is in here for a drug crime. When there's suspicion, we do a more intensive search."53 Indeed, inmates stated that women guards wearing gloves sometimes conduct vaginal searches of women visitors at this facility.

Prison authorities argue that stringent searches are necessary without seeming to acknowledge the embarrassment and emotional distress that such searches inflict on visitors. But even though it is difficult to reconcile the goals of prison security and respectful treatment of visitors, the one cannot simply override the other. In the absence of proper safeguards to ensure that visitors' dignity and privacy are protected, such searches may constitute degrading treatment in violation of Article 7 of the ICCPR and Article 5(2) of the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as arbitrary interference with personal privacy in violation of Article 17 of the ICCPR and Article 11 of the American Convention.

A 1996 decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is instructive on this issue. The case involved attempts by prison authorities in Argentina to require a woman and her daughter to submit to vaginal searches before visiting the woman's incarcerated husband. Emphasizing the extreme instrusiveness of such searches, which are likely to "provoke profound feelings of anguish and shame" in persons subject to them, the commission ruled that theyconstitute degrading treatment and violate visitors' right to privacy.54 Although the commission acknowledged the weighty security concerns underlying the search policy, it focused on the need for stringent safeguards to limit any possibility of the arbitrary or unnecessary use of such searches. In particular, it stated that vaginal searches are only justifiable if they are authorized by a law that clearly specifies the circumstances in which they are appropriate and if, in each particular instance in which they are used: 1) they are absolutely necessary for achieving a legitimate objective; 2) there is no alternative means of achieving the objective; 3) they are authorized by a judicial order, and 4) they are conducted by a health professional.

Another cautionary note on potentially degrading searches was sounded by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. In a general comment on body searches, the committee reminded government authorities that "effective measures should ensure that [body] searches are carried out in a manner consistent with the dignity of the person being searched."55

Brazil has few if any mechanisms in place to help ensure that potentially degrading searches of prison visitors are not arbitrarily and abusively performed. The national prison law does not regulate such searches, nor are there other effective constraints on their use. Strip searches, particularly when a woman is subject to a visual inspection of her vagina, have a high potential for causing shame and distress. Vaginal searches, which some inmates alleged are used, represent an even more serious invasion of privacy. Given the important interests on both sides of the issue, regulation and oversight are needed.

It should be noted, in addition, that the absence of proper visiting facilities reinforces the need for such intrusive searches, as the fact that visits normally take place in inmates' living areas heightens security concerns. Rather than subjecting visitors to these searches, the prisons should explore other ways of handling visits. As the Inter-American Commission emphasized in its opinion, alternative meansof protecting prison security should be relied on more extensively: metal detectors, for one.56

Legal visits

We heard no complaints from prisoners regarding interference with legal visits. It was obvious, however, that only a minority of inmates ever received such visits. Most prisoners only see their lawyers just prior to and during visits to court.

Correspondence and Telephone Communications

Inmates in Brazilian penal facilities are allowed to send and receive unlimited numbers of letters. In most facilities, though, their letters are censored: both incoming and outgoing mail is read. "We check for escape plans, threats, intimidation attempts. Once we found someone asking his family for a weapon."57 A few facilities allow inmates to write freely without review by prison staff.

Human Rights Watch only encountered three prisons in which inmates had easy access to telephones: the Center of Internment and Reeducation in Brasília, the João Chaves prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, and the Raimundo Vidal Pessoa prison in Manaus, Amazonas. At almost every other prison, and at all police lockups, prisoners had no telephone access whatsoever.58 (One possible exception to this rule in a few prisons was suggested by inmates who alleged that cellular phones were owned by rich inmates who had bribed guards to allow them. Human Rights Watch researchers did not see any cellular phones in the prisons, however.)

Access to the Press

Giving prisoners unhindered access to the press-or journalists free access to prisoners-can serve as an important defense against human rights violations. In Fortaleza, Ceará, in the most dramatic example that we can cite, two inmates-among the few survivors of group of inmates killed in a December 1997 escape attempt-may even owe their lives to members of the press who followed close behind the police that were pursuing their vehicles. In countless other incidents, journalists have been directly responsible for bringing prison abuses to light. Inmates' confidence in journalists' ability to prevent abuse, simply by being there to witness it, is demonstrated by the fact that inmates often include press access to a prison among their demands in negotiated resolutions of prison riots. Yet just as Human Rights Watch itself encountered widely varying reactions to our prison monitoring effort among Brazilian officials, we noted that reactions to journalistic coverage varied significantly as well. In the absence of fixed rules on the topic, prison officials are free to permit or bar journalists from their facilities as a matter of discretion.

Under certain circumstances, journalists are welcome. The former commander of São Paulo's seventy-eighth police precinct reportedly wanted to draw attention to its desperate situation of overcrowding-a problem he had no part in causing-so he permitted television camera crews in to film inmates hanging from the ceiling to sleep.59 Other overcrowded police lockups have been similarly open to the press. At the central prison in Manaus, Amazonas, despite its terrible conditions, members of the press are allowed in freeely. More frequently, however, journalists are barred from entering penal facilities and from interviewing prisoners about abuses, particularly in the immediate aftermath of violent incidents.60 The night of the bloody 1992 massacre of 111 prisoners at the Casa de Detenção, most notably, members of the press were kept out of the prison and not informed of what had happened; indeed, two photographers and a reporter were briefly detained by the police when they tried to photograph a military police vehicle taking away bodies.61

33 See Article 23 of the ICCPR, which states: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State"; see also Article 79 of the Standard Minimum Rules, which states: "Special attention shall be paid to the maintenance and improvement of such relations between a prisoner and his family as are desirable in the best interests of both."

34 Human Rights Watch interview, Félix Valois Coêlho Júnior, Secretary of Justice and Citizenship, Manaus, Amazonas, December 15, 1997.

35 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 41(X) (translation by Human Rights Watch). Interestingly, the word "girlfriend" (companheira) is specifically employed in the feminine gender, even though the masculine form of the noun (companheiro) is understood in Portuguese usage to include both girlfriends and boyfriends (an English equivalent would be "companion" or "mate"), and would normally be used when both genders are included. By using the feminine form of the noun, therefore, the law seems not to take into account the situation of women inmates, who might enjoy visits from their boyfriends; it also specifically excludes gay male inmates from visits from their partners. Indeed, the latter concern-wrongly, in the view of Human Rights Watch-probably inspired the law's wording. See Mirabete, Execução Penal, p. 122 (stating, "for the sake of preserving order and decorum, it is understood that only conjugal visits from the spouse or girlfriend should be allowed . . . excluding those of a homosexual character").

36 Ibid., art. 41, para. único, and art. 53(III).

37 Arquidiocese da Paraíba, "Relatório da Rebelião no Presídio do Roger," September 15, 1997 (translation by Human Rights Watch).

38 See, e.g., "Fim da rebelião na Penitenciária de Papuda deixa 12 feridos," O Globo, March 22, 1998 (rebellion at prison in Brasília caused by cancellation of weekend visits); "Rebelião de presos deixa um morto e dois feridos em Cajamar," O Globo, April 29, 1998 (rebellion at São Paulo police lockup caused by cancellation of visits).

39 Human Rights Watch interview, director, Casa de Detenção, São Paulo, November 28, 1997.

40 1997 Minas Gerais CPI report, p. 59 (translation by Human Rights Watch).

41 São Paulo's sixteenth police precinct imposed this rule, only permitting parents, grandparents, children, and wives or girlfriends to enter. Human Rights Watch interview, Darci Sassi, São Paulo, November 19, 1997.

42 Ibid.

43 Human Rights Watch interview, police commander, thirty-fifth police precinct, São Paulo, November 18, 1997.

44 São Paulo's Depatri police facility did not allow conjugal visits until about six months prior to our visit, but elsewhere the practice was well-established. For a discussion of conjugal visits in women's prisons, see the chapter on women prisoners below.

45 Many facilities bar prostitutes in theory, but we were told that in practice guards are paid to allow them in. E.g., Human Rights Watch interview, inmates, Penitenciária Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa, Manaus, Amazonas, December 16, 1997.

46 Human Rights Watch interviews, São Paulo, November 26, 1997.

47 The policy of allowing men and women inmates conjugal visits with their incarcerated partners was instituted in mid-1997, after the prison system came under the administration of the newly created Secretariat of Justice. Human Rights Watch interview, Suely Borges Oliveria, director, Penitenciária Feminina de Manaus, Manaus, Amazonas, December 17, 1997.

48 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 28, 1997. Another high official of the São Paulo prison system articulated a similar view during an interview last December: "The intimate [conjugal] visit was a revolution in the prisons. Being able to see women, the tendency is for the prisoner to leave off raping his colleagues." "Aids diminui violência sexual em prisões," Folha de São Paulo, December 28, 1997.

49 See, e.g., Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg, Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars (New York: Times Books, 1992), p. 75 ("Rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and an acting out of power roles.")

50 These complaints have been documented elsewhere. The 1997 report of the legislative inquiry into conditions in the penal facilities of Minas Gerais concluded, for example: "Prisoners' family members and representatives of religious groups endure vexing and even degrading situations" when they are searched upon entry to the prisons. 1997 Minas Gerais CPI report, p. 60.

51 Human Rights Watch interview, Col. Sebastião Saraiva de Souza, warden, Penitenciária Central Dr. João Chaves, Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, December 12, 1997.

52 Human Rights Watch interview, Lt. André Córdova, Penitenciária de Alta Segurança de Charqueadas, Rio Grande do Sul, December 2, 1997.

53 Human Rights Watch interview, João da Mata Medeiros Filho, director, Penitenciária Estadual de Campina Grande, Paraíba, December 8, 1997.

54 María Arena v. Argentina, Case No. 10,506 (October 30, 1996). The commission also ruled that such searches violate the right to protection of the family, guaranteed in Article 17 of the American Convention.

55 General Comment 16 to Article 17, "Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies," U.N. Document HRI/GEN/Rev.1, July 29, 1994.

56 At the women's prison in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, for example, visitors go through a metal detector and their bags are searched, but they are not subject to body searches. Instead, prisoners are searched after visits. Human Rights Watch interview, Isis Nelly Silva dos Santos, warden, Penitenciária Feminina Madre Pelletier, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, December 3, 1997.

57 Human Rights Watch interview, Humberto Paiva, warden, Penitenciária de Segurança Máxima, João Pessoa, Paraíba, December 10, 1997.

58 At the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary we were informed that if an inmate had an important reason for needing to make a phone call-to check up on the health of a sick family member, for example-she could ask a social worker to make the call for her. Officials there also told us that they were in the process of completing a study assessing the possibility of installing pay phones in the prison, an option that they favored. Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 25, 1997.

59 Human Rights Watch interview, Ricardo Arantes Cestari, assistant commander, seventy-eighth police precinct, São Paulo, November 19, 1997.

60 See, e.g., Denize Assis, "Choque invade cadeia e termina motim," Folha de São Paulo, November 8, 1997 (noting that journalists were not granted access to the interior of the jail after a police invasion repressed an inmate riot).

61 Human Rights Watch/Americas, "Brazil: Prison Massacre . . . ," p. 7.

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