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Behind Bars in Brazil

XI. Women Prisoners



In Brazil, as elsewhere, the female inmate population is small by comparison to the male inmate population. The country's prisons, jails and police lockups confine some 8,510 female inmates, constituting about 4 percent of the inmate population. The penal system's gender distribution roughly approximates that found in other countries in the region.

Like their male counterparts, many women prisoners suffer harsh conditions of confinement and abusive treatment, including overcrowded penal facilities, insufficient medical and legal assistance, and the inadequate provision of basic supplies. Yet female inmates are generally spared some of the worst aspects of the men's prisons. Overall, women prisoners tend to enjoy greater access to work opportunities; suffer less custodial violence, and are provided greater material support. On the other hand, women prisoners also bear special burdens, in particular, limited recreational facilities and discrimination in conjugal visiting rights.

Even more so than the men's prison population, the women's prison population includes a large proportion of inmates charged or convicted under the country's drug laws. Indeed, in the facilities we visited, roughly half of the female inmates were held for drug crimes, usually for very low-level offenses.

As was once common in Latin America, many of the women's prisons were formerly administered by nuns. The São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, for example, was managed by an order of Catholic nuns until 1980. At present, the women's prisons tend to have better levels of staffing than do the men's prisons, resulting in somewhat more supervision and assistance.

Physical Layout and Conditions

Reflecting the small number of female prisoners in each state, the women's prisons are small facilities, none of which approach the dimensions of the larger men's prisons. The São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, the largest women's prison in the country, has four main cellblocks for a total capacity of 256, although it has held up to 400 female inmates; the Women's House of Detention in Tatuapé, in the state of São Paulo, also holds over 200 inmates. The vast majority of women's prisons, however, hold fewer than a hundred inmates. Many are located in buildings converted from a previous use-the João Pessoa women's prison islocated in a former convent, for example-or in small annexes adjoining larger men's prisons.75

Most women's prisons are overcrowded, although to a lesser extent than the men's prisons. At the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, for example, we saw two women living in each individual cell, and we were told that three women had been squeezed into some

cells during recent renovations. A few women's prisons, such as the Natal and Brasília facilities, were at or slightly below capacity.76 The physical infrastructure of the women's facilities tended to be in good condition-much better than the men's facilities-with decent paint, tile bathrooms, and functioning sinks and toilets.

Unlike the men's prisons, most women's prisons did not have very large exercise areas. Many of them included only small paved patios. The Natal women's prison, one of the worst in this respect, had an internal patio with plants in it between the two rows of cells, allowing women inmates almost no space to exercise.

The worst facility that Human Rights Watch saw, in terms of the conditions in which women inmates lived, was São Paulo's third police precinct. Located in an area known as "Crackolandia" for the drugs sold and consumed there, the precinct lockup held numerous drug addicts and, among the women inmates, prostitutes. The facility lacked a women's annex; instead, women prisoners were crammed into a holding cell at the entrance of the men's area. The day we visited, ten women were locked into a long narrow cell of approximately sixteen by three feet, of which the last couple of feet were occupied by a hole-in-the-floor toilet. With a broken lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, the cell had no light besides the sunlight that entered through the barred metal gate. One of the women inmates, who was five months pregnant, was complaining of sickness andpain, but the guards ignored her. She had spent the last ten days locked in the dark crowded cell.

Medical Care

Despite the fact that women prisoners usually have more medical needs than men prisoners, medical care is often extremely deficient in penal facilities for women. The women's prison in João Pessoa, Paraíba, for example, lacks an infirmary and a doctor; medical care is provided by a nurse who visits three mornings a week. We spoke to a woman there who was seven months pregnant but who had never received a prenatal medical examination.

HIV/AIDS is a serious threat to the health of women prisoners: indeed, studies indicate that the disease strikes an even higher percentage of incarcerated women than men. Twenty percent of the women prisoners tested for the AIDS virus at the Women's Penitentiary in São Paulo were found to be HIV-positive.77 A large proportion of these women are thought to have contracted HIV via shared injection equipment, a conclusion based on the high frequency of drug use within this population.

Relations among Inmates

Because the small size of the female inmate population in each state means that each women's prison generally serves a large geographic area, each facility also tends to hold all types of inmates, with no separation by criminal history, legal status, or other criteria. Within each prison, as well, inmates tend to be intermingled somewhat haphazardly. Only a couple of facilities visited by Human Rights Watch separated women according to their legal status or their conduct: the Porto Alegre women's prison and the Brasília women's prison. The Porto Alegre facility had several pavilions that separated different groups of inmates, so that, for example, pretrial detainees were held apart from convicted prisoners. The Brasília facility, similarly, had two distinct pavilions: one for convicted prisoners who maintained a good conduct record, and the other for pretrial detainees and those convicted prisoners with less than stellar conduct.

Despite the lack of separation by category, reports of inmate-on-inmate violence were few. "The fights here are endless, but they're with words, not weapons," explained one woman, in a typical comment.78

The only prison in which inmates described an atmosphere of danger was the women's facility in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, where Human Rights Watch found three women living in two tiny cells in an isolation area, separate from the general prison population. These women, who lived in isolation by choice, claimed to be in fear of their lives. One of the women had been stabbed thirteen times by a group of inmates within the prison; she had spent three days in the hospital and had terrible scars on her chest. Another of the women said, "There's a small group that's in charge within the prison; they beat people; they order killings; they control the drug trafficking."79

Discipline, Punishment, and Treatment by Guards

Consistent with international rules, Brazil's national prison law stipulates that women prisoners must be supervised by women guards.80 In practice, some women's prisons employ both male and female guards, although they normally impose restrictions on which areas of the facility male guards can enter, so that, for example, men are not supposed to venture into housing areas or bathrooms. Women prisoners in several facilities told us, nonetheless, that male guards oftenentered these areas; at one facility they even stated that sexual relations between guards and prisoners had occurred in the past.81

Human Rights Watch heard far fewer complaints of staff violence at women's facilities than at men's facilities. Beatings were rare at most facilities-with the most serious incidents involving outside police rather than prison staff-and even the sanction of isolation in punishment cells was not casually used. (Indeed, the Manaus women's prison did not even have a punishment cell.) "They never beat us," an inmate at the Natal women's prison affirmed. "A couple of years ago there was a guard who'd hit us sometimes, but she was fired."82 Overall, relations between prisoners and guards in the women's prisons were much more cordial and friendly than they were in the men's facilities, with genuine affection being expressed in some instances.

Women at the João Pessoa women's prison, in Paraíba, had an ugly incident to recount, however. A new inmate who was locked in a holding cell asked a friend of hers who was outside the cell window to lend her a lighter. Since she was not supposed to smoke in the cell, a male guard who overheard the request got angry and brought her to a punishment cell down the hall. There, "he kicked me in the gut; I fell, and he picked me up and choked me with a bath towel. I tried to scream. The girls in the collective cell heard me; they got scared and yelled, `Don't hit her.' Then he let me go."83 The woman spent two hours handcuffed, then eighteen days in the punishment cell.

Women in João Pessoa also complained about verbal abuse, particularly from the male guards. "They humiliate and insult us, calling us `sow, whore, monkey, bandit, disgrace, demon face.'" Similar complaints of verbal abuse were voiced at the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, where women inmates said that male guards occasionally refer to them as "prostitutes." At the Manaus prison, women stated that male guards had entered several times to verbally and physically abuse a mentally ill woman prisoner.

A 1997 report on women confined at the Tatuapé Women's House of Detention, in São Paulo, found similar problems with male guards. In particular, the report stated that the delegation "received 15 complaints of beatings and mistreatment inside the facility. All of them identified the same employee, affirming that he acted violently and arrogantly, and asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation."84

Riots and Protests

Riots and other protests are relatively infrequent in the women's prisons. Prison authorities at some facilities, such as the Manaus and Natal women's prisons, claimed that such incidents never occur. As in men's penal facilities, however, when riots do occur, they are often put down violently.

On the afternoon of January 12, 1997, military and civil police brutally beat some eighty-five women prisoners at the public jail of Santa Rosa de Viterbo, in São Paulo. The women had been conducting a noisy but peaceful protest against the authorities' refusal to allow one woman to attend her grandson's funeral, yelling and beating on plastic containers. Instead of resolving the matter verbally, the police commander invaded the jail with about fourteen other officers. Armed with broomsticks and police batons, the officers beat nearly all of the women, thirty of them severely.

The women surreptiously photographed their bruises and, through visitors, smuggled out the photographs to the Prison Ministry, which reported the beatings to the São Paulo police ombudsman. After an extensive investigation, the ombudsman found no evidence to support police claims that the women had set fire to their mattresses and provoked the raid, concluding that "there was no rebellion, but rather an unjustified beating."85 His formal report of the incident recommended that the police be punished both criminally and administratively.86 As of January 1998, however, punishments had been light.87 At the same time, twelve of the women prisoners had been prosecuted for mutiny.88

The São Paulo's Women's Penitentiary was the site of several rebellions in 1997, during a period when it was severely overcrowded. In the first one, which took place in February, a group of women who wanted transfers to a less crowded prison took two guards hostage. One woman prisoner described how the incident was quelled:

[The women with hostages were in pavilion four.] About eight guys from the shock troops came in with iron bars and beat inmates. They started in pavilion four and then went to three and two. All of them were outsiders or [male] guards in charge of external security. They didn't go to pavilion one. The women guards took off running; they abandoned the pavilions. We could see the men coming in, and we heard the screams. Some of the men were wearing uniforms and some were in jeans. We ran into the cells-five or six of us in each cell. They came in with the iron bars in their hands. They set up a gauntlet and made some of the women pass through it.89

Numerous women were injured in the attack, and one woman's leg was broken. Most of the injured women were transferred to other prisons; some were sent to an insane asylum.

A second serious riot broke out on July 17 of the same year. This one began spontaneously.

A girl burned herself in the morning after getting beaten by police, when she was locked up in the punishment cell (cela forte) on the second floor of pavilion one. She set her mattress on fire, and they took a while to go get her, so she burned a lot. Her skin was falling off; she was screaming; everyone saw her. The rebellion started in the afternoon. Everyone was upset about what happened; the director, seeing how distressed we were, asked if we were upset because we didn't have enough drugs, like we were all drug addicts. This set everybody off. People started yelling at the director, she took off, and they started smashing up the workshops.90

Police shock troops amassed at the main gate but did not invade the prison. Instead, two judges came and spoke with inmates' representives, and the rioting subsided. In the aftermath of the riot, prison officials removed the televisions from the ground floor of the cellblocks and changed inmates' evening lockup time from 9:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. One group of about ten prisoners was transferred out; sixteen other alleged leaders of the riot, some of whom indicated to Human Rights Watch that they were unfairly singled out for punishment, were first confined for thirty days in cells in an area known as "behind the wall," on the second floor of the first pavilion. During this entire time, they were not brought out for sun or exercise and had no television or radio. "We only got out for five minutes to take a shower, with six male guards watching over us."91 Then they were brought to a nearby area known as "in front of the wall" where they were held for another ninety days of "psychological treatment," which involved twenty-three hours per day of lockup and occasional group therapy sessions.

Just after the women were moved to the area in front of the wall, a number of guards, mostly men, conducted a "blitz" of their cells. One woman told us:

There were two guards who were drunk. One of them slapped Irene in the face and spit on her, calling her a whore because she complained, then they broke her things. The same guard wanted to hit Cristina, but [a woman guard] wouldn't let him.92

Family Ties

Maintaining contact with their families is a critical issue for incarcerated women. Almost all women prisoners have children, either inside or outside of the prison, as well as husbands or boyfriends, other relatives and friends. These women worry that they will lose custody of their children, that their partners will abandon them, and that their families and friends will forget them. Even more so than men prisoners, imprisoned women face serious obstacles to preserving their social connections.

To begin with, because of the traditional stigma attaching to the incarceration of women, some women inmates are ostracized by their families and receive few or no visits. At the eighteenth precinct, for example, one of eight police lockups in the city of São Paulo that hold women inmates, the assistant police commander told us that approximately twenty-or more than one-third-of the fifty-eight women confined there had no visitors.93 In addition, visiting rules and conditions in many women's facilities left much to be desired. At the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, in particular, women are only allowed visits a few hours a week in a noisy and crowded visiting area.94 The visiting area at the João Pessoa women's prison was extremely well-kept and attractive, with shade trees and benchs, but women complained that it was far too small to handle the nearly seventy visitors that came every Sunday. Women at São Paulo's eighteenth police precinct were only allowed a two-hour visit every Wednesday.

The Brazilian constitution mandates that women prisoners be permitted to keep their nursing babies during the entire lactation period.95 In order toimplement this rule, the national prison law states that every women's prison must be equipped with a nursery for mothers and their infants.96 Many women's prisons abide by these requirements, but not all of them. At the women's prison in Manaus, Amazonas state, babies can only stay with their mothers for a week because the facility is too overcrowded to permit them to remain longer. Worse, in São Paulo's eighteenth police precinct, women are not even allowed to spend this first week with their infants, but must give them up at the hospital. We spoke to two mothers there who had given birth less than a month and a half before our visits: both of them had only seen their babies once since the delivery date.97

Some facilities, on the other hand, have more flexible rules for detained mothers, allowing them to keep their infants for several years. The Women's Penitentiary in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul is one such facility: it held twelve children ranging from babies to five-year-olds at the time we visited.

Conjugal Visits

The conjugal visiting policies of many states discriminate against women prisoners. While male prisoners tend to be freely granted such visits, with little or no control being exercised by state authorities, women prisoners are sometimes denied them or allowed them only under extremely tight restrictions.

São Paulo is one state that does not permit women prisoners conjugal visits, although it does men. When Human Rights Watch visited the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary in November 1997, we were told that a project to institute such visits was underway, although prison officials could not predict when they might start.98

Most women's prisons allow conjugal visits to those women who can show that they comply with a number of requirements. At the Porto Alegre women's prison, for example, women must show good behavior; have a stable relationship with the man, and undergo a series of medical exams (for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases). In addition, both she and her partner must be interviewed by a social worker.

Conjugal visits were only instituted at the João Pessoa women's prison in December 1997, a week before Human Rights Watch visited it. "To avoid promiscuity," the director of the prison had imposed a number of requirements onwomen wanting such visits, limiting them to women with husbands or "stable companions," and good conduct records.99 After convincing the local judge of penal execution of the efficacy of these requirements, the director obtained a judicial order allowing the visits.

Because of such restrictions, the number of women actually receiving conjugal visits is low. At the Porto Alegre women's prison, only nine of 146 women inmates were allowed such visits; at the João Pessoa prison, only five of sixty-five inmates were allowed them; at the Manaus prison, only six of sixty-eight. (The exception in this respect was the Natal prison, where nearly all women were permitted conjugal visits.)

On the whole, the dramatically different treatment of women compared to men with regard to the granting of such visits constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex, prohibited by the ICCPR and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), both of which Brazil has ratified.100 The traditional denial of conjugal visits to women prisoners reflects society's historically greater discomfort with acknowledging or accommodating women's sexuality, and the current discriminatory visiting rules employed by many states continue to reinforce pernicious gender-based stereotypes. Even where prison authorities do not interfere with male prisoners' possibly promiscuous behavior or take steps to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in male prisons, they only permit strictly regulated monogamous sexual activity for women prisoners, and then only for carefully selected women.

Nor does the possibility that women prisoners may become pregnant negate the fact of discrimination. Pregnancy as a condition is inextricably linkedand specific to being female. By targeting a condition only women experience, discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is itself a form of sex discrimination. Indeed, where pregnancy-based discrimination has been reviewed in light of international human rights standards, the bodies charged with interpreting those standards have consistently characterized pregnancy-based discrimination as a form of sex discrimination.101

In at least one jurisdiction, it should be noted, men and women prisoners' requests for conjugal visits are assessed under equivalent rules. Brasília restricts both men and women inmates to conjugal visits with their spouses or stable companions (looking for proof that the couple has lived together), and requires both partners to be tested for HIV and venereal disease.102 We were told that Rio de Janeiro also imposes the same requirements for conjugal visits on men and women prisoners, but we were unable to confirm this claim.

Work, Education, and Other Activities

Overall, women inmates have greater access to work than do men inmates. At most of the women's prisons Human Rights Watch visited, the large majority of prisoners were employed. At the São Paulo Women's Penitentiary, for example, 340 out of 388 inmates were employed, 288 in workshops making items such as notebooks, party favors, and underwear, the rest providing janitorial services within the prison. All but one of the women confined at the Manaus women's prison, when we visited in December 1997, were working, mostly making craft items suchas dolls. As of July 1997, nearly all inmates at the Tatuapé women's prison, also in São Paulo, had the opportunity to work.103 Women's pay also tends to be much better, in that women inmates generally receive at least the minimum salary mandated under the national prison law.

Educational, training, and cultural opportunities are somewhat less abundant but are still more easily available than in the men's facilities. Besides basic academic subjects, art, dance, and music classes are given in some facilities. Women at the Natal prison said, however, that classes begin but never meet for more than two sessions, making it impossible to obtain a diploma in any subject.

75 The women's prisons that Human Rights Watch visited in Manaus, Amazonas, and Natal, Rio Grande do Norte adjoined larger men's prisons, as was the case until November 1997 with the women's prison in Brasília.

76 The Manaus women's prison held thirty-five inmates when Human Rights Watch visited, a number that seemed somewhat high given its small size. It had a total of ten cells, the first being a holding cell for incoming inmates, and the remaining nine cells holding three to four inmates (they were roughly appropriate for two inmates). Surprisingly, the director stated that its capacity was one hundred, which would make it far under capacity. To fit one hundred inmates, however, each double cell would have to hold ten inmates; they would hardly have room to sit.

77 Human Rights Watch interview, biologist from the Faculty of Health of the University of São Paulo, Penitenciária Feminina, São Paulo, November 25, 1997. Medical staff at the Women's Penitentiary in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, said that they believed at least 10 percent of inmates at that facility to be HIV-positive. Human Rights Watch interview, Penitenciária Feminina Madre Pelletier, December 3, 1997.

78 Human Rights Watch interview, woman inmate, Comeia, Brasília, December 19, 1997.

79 Human Rights Watch interview, Pavilhão Feminino, Penitenciária Central João Chaves, Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, December 13, 1997.

80 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 77, sec. 2. The provision makes an exception for specialized technical personnel such as doctors. Similarly, article 53(3) of the Standard Minimum Rules states:

Women prisoners shall be attended and supervised only by women officers. This does not, however, preclude male members of the staff, particularly doctors and teachers, from carrying out their professional duties in institutions or parts of institutions set aside for women.

In additions, article 53(2) of the Standard Minimum Rules bars male staff members from entering women's facilities or sections outside of the presence of a female officer.

81 Human Rights Watch interviews, Pavilhão Feminino, Penitenciária Central João Chaves, Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, December 13, 1997. The women assured us that these sexual relations were consensual, not coerced. However, given the imbalance of power between the people involved, this distinction is highly problematic in the prison context. See generally Human Rights Watch Women Rights Project, All Too Familiar: The Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

82 Human Rights Watch interview, Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, December 13, 1997.

83 Human Rights Watch interview, João Pessoa, Paraíba, December 9, 1997.

84 Grupo Cidadania nos Presídios, "Casa de Detenção Feminina do Tatuapé," 1997 (translation by Human Rights Watch).

85 Human Rights Watch interview, Benedito Domingos Mariano, police ombudsman for the state of São Paulo, São Paulo, January 7, 1998.

86 Ouvidoria da Polícia do Estado de São Paulo, Protocolo no. 2.817/97, February 25, 1997, p. 9.

87 The administrative judgment against the police commander who ordered the invasion and who the women prisoners said led the beatings recommended that he be suspended from his duties for ten days and that four civil police officers under his command each be suspended for five days. Delegacia Seccional de Polícia de Ribeirão Preto, Relatório: Sindicância Administrativa Disciplinar no. 004/97, August 19, 1997. (This judgment only becomes final after review by the police disciplinary council.) Administrative proceedings against the eight military police implicated in the incident resulted in sentences of from one to four days' detention. Polícia Militar do Estado de São Paulo, Enquadramento Disciplinar nos. 885088, 900936-1, 930613-7, 930628-5, 934367-9, 943818-1, 951344-2, and 912341-5.

In June 1997, a criminal court concluded that there was probable cause to prosecute the five civil police and eight military police for abuse of authority and battery (lesão corporal). Order, Juízo de Direito da Comarca de Santa Rosa de Viterbo, June 3, 1997.

88 "Relatório Anual de Prestação de Contas da Ouvidoria da Polícia - 1997," p. 5.

89 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 25, 1997.

90 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 25, 1997.

91 Ibid.

92 Ibid.

93 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 21, 1997.

94 Visits are held on Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., with half the prison receiving visits in the morning and half in the afternoon. Visitors who have traveled from abroad or from distant regions within Brazil, however, are permitted to visit every day over a two-week period.

95 Constitution of Brazil, art. 5, sec. L.

96 Lei de Execução Penal, art. 83, sec. 2.

97 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 21, 1997.

98 Human Rights Watch interview, São Paulo, November 25, 1997.

99 Human Rights Watch interview, Vera Lucia Almeda Targino Alcoforado, director, Casa de Recuperação Feminina Bom Pastor, João Pessoa, Paraíba, December 9, 1997. The director told Human Rights Watch that the woman must have lived with the man for at least six months prior to her incarceration and that social workers "investigate" their relationship.

100 Article 26 of the ICCPR provides: "All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as . . . sex." Similarly, article 2 of the CEDAW states: "States parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake: . . . (d) To refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation; . . . "

101 For example, the International Labor Organization's Committee of Experts interpreted ilo Convention 111 on Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation, which prohibits discrimination based on gender in access to employment, to prohibit pregnancy discrimination. Conditions of Work Digest, Volume 13 (Geneva: International Labor Office, 1994), p. 24. Similarly, in a 1991 case the European Court of Justice (ecj) ruled that pregnancy-based discrimination constitutes impermissible sex discrimination. The ecj ruled against a Dutch company that sought to avoid hiring a woman because she was pregnant, concluding that "only women can be refused employment on the grounds of pregnancy and such a refusal therefore constitutes direct discrimination on the grounds of sex." Case C-177/88, Dekker v. Stichting Vormingscentrum voor Jong Volwassenen (VJV-Centrum) Plus, 1990 E.C.R.3941. Although the findings of the ecj are not binding in Brazil, the court's holding constitutes persuasive authority that pregnancy-based discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

For a more extended discussion of this topic, see Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, No Guarantees: Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector, Vol. 8, No. 6 (August 1996), pp. 30-33.

102 Human Rights Watch interviews, Brasília, December 19, 1997.

103 Grupo Cidadania nos Presídios, "Casa de Detenção . . . "

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