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Behind Bars in Brazil

X. Work and Other Activities



Work, supplemented by education and training, plays a significant role in the national prison law's rehabilitation strategy. By mastering a trade or a profession, learning a skill, and acquiring good work habits, a prisoner can greatly improve his chances of successfully integrating into society upon release. Nonetheless, only a minority of Brazilian prisoners are offered the opportunity to work. 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. The idleness and boredom that result aggravate tensions among inmates and between inmates and guards.


Under the national prison law, all convicted prisoners are required to work.62 It should be noted, however, that the law's obligations with regard to prison labor are reciprocal: prisoners have the right to work and prison authorities, therefore, are required to provide prisoners with the opportunity to work.63 Yet, despite the law's mandates, the country's penal facilities do not offer sufficient work opportunities to occupy all prisoners. Although the proportion of prisoners who are engaged in some form of useful labor varies significantly from prison to prison, only in a few women's prisons did we find work opportunities to be plentiful. To cite some representative examples from among the facilities visited by Human Rights Watch: about 15 percent of the inmate population in the central prison in Manaus, Amazonas was employed; about 50 to 60 percent of the inmate population at São Paulo's State Penitentiary was employed; no one at the High Security Penitentiary of João Pessoa, Paraíba was employed; about 30 to 40 percent of the inmate population at the Campina Grande prison in Paraíba was employed; about 15 percent of the inmate population of the central prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte was employed, and about 20 percent of the inmate population at the Central Prison of Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul was employed.

Even worse is the situation in the police lockups. The only job opportunity they offer is janitorial work. Only a handful of inmates in each lockup-known as faxinas-have such jobs: usually from two to six prisoners,depending on the size of the lockup. Everyone else, whether convicted or unconvicted, is idle.

It should be emphasized that the low numbers of employed prisoners are due to the shortage of work opportunities, not any lack of interest on the part of prisoners. To begin with, under the national prison law work is supposed to be mandatory, not optional. But even more compelling in practice is the incentive created by the law's sentence reduction provisions, which require that one day be deducted from a prisoners' sentence for

every three days worked. Anxious to gain early release from prison, almost all prisoners are willing to work, even to work without pay. Indeed, the shortage of work opportunities was the subject of numerous inmate complaints. The absence of work in the lockups, moreover, is one of the many reasons prisoners riot for transfer into the prison system.

The type of work offered prisoners ranges from maintenance, clean-up, and repair work-available in most prisons-to employment by private companies, which hire inmates to produce items such as folders, boxes, and notebooks. Some prisons have workshops operated by the National Prison Foundation (Fundação Nacional Penitenciária, FUNAP), the national body charged with managing prison labor, where inmates sew or do carpentry.

Prisoners' earnings vary considerably from prison to prison. The national prison law mandates that inmates be paid three-quarters of the minimum wage, which, at current wage rates, would be 97.5 reais per month (approximately U.S. $86).64 Human Rights Watch found few prisons that paid inmates anything near this amount; indeed, in violation of international standards regulating prison labor, some did not pay inmates at all.65 Inmates at a number of facilities, including São Paulo's Casa de Detenção and State Penitentiary, do piece-work and are paid according to their output. Inmates making cards at the Casa de Detenção, for example, told us that they made about twenty to twenty-five reais per month(approximately $18 to $22) if they worked long hours, and about fifteen reais per month if they worked regular hours.66


The generally low educational level of people who enter the prison system, which reduces their attractiveness on the job market, suggests that prison educational programs can be a vital avenue for preparing inmates for a successful return to society. Recognizing this possibility, the national prison law mandates that prisoners be offered the opportunity for study, guaranteeing them, in particular, an elementary school education.67 It also promises inmates vocational and professional training.68

The more overcrowded, noisy and dangerous the prison, of course, the less conducive it is to education. Not surprisingly, some notoriously bad prisons, such as Roger prison in João Pessoa, Paraíba, offer inmates no educational opportunities. In other prisons, only a fraction of the prison population is able to study. At São Paulo's State Penitentiary, for example, nearly 10 percent of prisoners-some 200 inmates-were said to be studying at the primary school level, while about 5 percent of inmates in São Paulo's Casa de Detenção were said to be taking primary or secondary school classes, as were about 8 percent of prisoners at the central prison in Manaus, Amazonas. Paralleling their denial of work, police lockups offer prisoners no study opportunities whatsoever.

Although some outside professors are brought in to teach, most classes are taught by inmates, those with greater education or special skills. In the Manaus central prison, for example, we met a Colombian inmate who taught several Spanish classes.

During our visits, we saw several empty classrooms but few classes in progress. At the Casa de Detenção, we did see a typing class in the sixth pavilion; the teacher, an inmate, told us that a total of about seventy prisoners receive typing classes of an hour a day for six months.

Exercise and Recreation

In somewhat inexact language, the national prison law requires "proportionality" between the time prisoners dedicate to work and the time they dedicate to rest and recreation.69 Of course, since most prisoners spend little time working, they therefore have a great deal of time available to exercise, play games, relax, or sleep. Their access to recreational facilities-in particular, to reasonably sized outdoor playing fields or courts-varies considerably from prison to prison, however.

Some prisons have outdoor patios or fields adjoining the cell blocks, and prisoners spend the entire day in them. In others, inmates of different wings of the prison are brought out in turn to use one or two exercise areas. In the Manaus central prison, for example, prisoners in each of the four wings get an hour and a half of outdoor time each day in a large soccer field. At the Porto Alegre Central Prison, in Rio Grande do Sul, prisoners get two hours of patio time each day. At the High Security Prison of Charqueadas, in Rio Grande do Sul, prisoners are locked in their cells all day except for the four hours daily that they are released into the patio to exercise. These facilities are in accord with the Standard Minimum Rules, which mandate that prisoners be allowed at least one hour per day of outdoor exercise.70

But in many other prisons-or in certain sections of prisons-inmates have more limited outdoor exercise possibilities. At the Dr. João Chaves Penitentiary in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, for example, prisoners are only allowed into the patio two days a week, for two hours each time. At João Pessoa's High Security prison-another facility in which prisoners spend almost the whole day locked in their cells-inmates get between thirty and forty-five minutes a day of outdoor time. In general, prisoners in isolation cells, who for whatever reason must be kept separate from the main inmate population, are usually provided the most limited exercise opportunities. The prisoners living in the holding cells and gallery B-3 of the Porto Alegre Central Prison, for example, are brought out to get two hours of sun once a week, sometimes twice a week. Brasília's main prison contains a special wing for inmates with enemies in other areas of the prison, whose forty or so inhabitants are never allowed out in the yard to exercise, and whoonly go out for sun once a week.71 Their situation parallels that of the "yellow" inmates in São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, who get two hours of sun one day a week.

Exercise is all but impossible in police lockups. Many of them do have patios adjoining the cells, which prisoners are released into during the day. If the lockups had the small numbers of prisoners that they were designed to hold, then some recreational activities would be possible, but overcrowding has eliminated this option. Instead, to pass the time, prisoners listen to radios, sing, play cards, and talk. As one prisoner pointed out, emphasizing the daily routine of complete idleness, he has "nothing to do all day but think about ways to escape."72

In both the prisons and the police lockups, escape via television and drugs is common among prisoners. Indeed, in São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, we saw prisoners smoking marijuana in the cell corridors. "Drugs make the time go by," explained an inmate at another facility.73


Consistent with international standards, the national prison law guarantees prisoners the right to religious freedom.74 Most prisoners are at least nominally Catholic and, as mentioned previously, the Prison Ministry of the Catholic Church has local representatives around the country who visit the prisons on a regular basis, holding religious services and ministering to prisoners' religious needs. Protestant and Afro-Brazilian denominations are also active in the prisons. Often a group of religious inmates of a given denomination-particularly Protestant (or Evangelical) inmates-will live together in a special section of a prison.

Larger prisons often have one or more churches. The second pavilion of São Paulo's Casa de Detenção, for example, has separate rooms for its Catholic church, African church, and two Protestant churches. Police lockups, in contrast, have no room to allow for any special accommodation of prisoners practicing their religion.

62 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 31. In accordance with international standards, unconvicted prisoners are not required to work. See Standard Minimum Rules, art. 89.

63 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 41, sec. II.

64 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 29.

65 Here are some examples from the prisons Human Rights Watch visited: Roger prison, in João Pessoa, Paraíba, paid most prisoners a monthly salary of ten reais (approximately U.S. $9), but a handful of prisoners responsible for the maintenance and repair of the prison, were paid a monthly salary of seventy-five reais (approximately $67); the Central Penitentiary in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, did not pay inmates (who work in order to receive sentence reductions); the Manaus central prison paid inmates a monthly salary of seventy-five reais; São Paulo's Casa de Detenção did not pay prisoners who were teaching (typing classes, etc.) or doing janitorial work. Article 76(1) of the Standard Minimum Rules requires that inmates be paid for their labor.

66 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, January 5, 1998.

67 Lei de Execução Penal, arts. 17-21.

68 Ibid., art. 19. This article includes a somewhat puzzling proviso: that "the convicted woman will have professional training adequate to her condition." The scholarly commentary on the national prison law that we have reviewed fails to shed any light on the concrete meaning of this requirement.

69 Ibid., art. 41, sec. V.

70 Standard Minimum Rules, art. 21(1).

71 Human Rights Watch interview, Francisco da Silva Viera, director, Centro de Internamento e Reeducação, Brasília, December 18, 1997.

72 Human Rights Watch interview, ninth police precinct, São Paulo, November 24, 1997.

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

74 Lei de Execuçào Penal, art. 24; Standard Minimum Rules, art. 41.

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