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Brazil: Youths Abused in Rio’s Detention Centers

Youths face abuse and inhumane conditions in Rio de Janeiro’s state juvenile detention centers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. One year ago this week, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched a still-unfulfilled action plan to address children’s rights, including the needs of youths in detention.

The 70-page report, “‘Real Dungeons’: Juvenile Detention in the State of Rio de Janeiro,” documents that youths in Rio de Janeiro’s detention centers are often beaten and verbally abused by guards. Most complaints of ill-treatment are never investigated by the state’s Department of Socio-Educational Action (Departamento Geral de Ações Sócio-Educativas, or DEGASE), the authority responsible for juvenile detention facilities. Administrative sanctions against guards are rare and usually take the form of transfers to other detention centers; no guard has ever faced criminal charges for abusive conduct.

“Rio’s juvenile detention centers are decaying, filthy and dangerously overcrowded,” said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Frequent abuse by guards will continue as long as they know they’ll never have to account for their actions.”

More than one-third of youths arrested in the state are charged with drug offenses, including drug trafficking. Strategies to address youth involvement in the drug trade include improved access to education, vocational training, and job programs to offer real alternatives to drug trafficking.

But many youths receive no education whatsoever while in detention. Nor do they receive vocational training, the rehabilitative service that they and their parents most often identified as one of their top priorities.

“State authorities in Rio are missing a key opportunity to rehabilitate youths and make their communities safer,” Bochenek said.

Health and hygiene are also serious concerns in detention centers. Youths wear the same clothes for days or weeks before they are laundered. Many share tattered foam mattresses, and others sleep on the cement floor. They may not be able to bathe for days at a time, and they must depend on their families to bring them soap, toothpaste and toilet paper. When Human Rights Watch toured the detention centers in July and August 2003, most youths and some staff were infected with scabies.

Under Brazil’s federal structure, each state administers its own juvenile detention system. But the federal government provides much of the funding that enables states to maintain detention centers, hire guards and provide services to detained youths. Under the presidential action plan announced last year, the federal government committed additional funding to expand states’ capacity to investigate and punish cases of torture, violence and other abuses in juvenile detention centers.

Human Rights Watch called on the federal government to fulfill the commitments it made in the presidential action plan. DEGASE should establish a complaints system with independent monitoring, and state prosecutors need to exercise greater oversight of juvenile detention centers.

The report is based on interviews with dozens of detained youths, government officials, lawyers, healthcare professionals, detention center guards, parents of youths in detention, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch inspected five juvenile detention centers in the state, including the state’s only detention center for girls.

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