Youths in a Rio de Janeiro detention center rioted yesterday after state officials failed to act promptly on warnings that critical shortages of staffing, food and clothing increased the risk of violent rebellion, Human Rights Watch said.

On Sunday evening, youths detained at the Educandário Santo Expedito in Bangu rioted after staffing shortages led authorities to suspend classes, recreation, and nearly all other activities at the beginning of January, meaning that youths have spent most of the last three months locked in their cells. The detention center also lacked sufficient food and clothing for detainees for most of that time, raising health and hygiene concerns.

Staffing shortages affect most other juvenile detention centers in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area, notably the Instituto Padre Severino and to a lesser extent the Centro de Atendimento Intensive Belford Roxo (CAI-Baixada). The shortages are most critical at Padre Severino because that facility is severely overcrowded, with nearly twice as many youths as the 160 it was designed to hold. These circumstances led the directors of five detention centers in Rio and the public defender’s office to warn the state’s Department of Socio-Educational Action (Departamento Geral de Ações Sócio-Educativas, or DEGASE) earlier this month that the youths’ protracted confinement and enforced idleness was a security threat.

“Depriving youths of education and recreation for three months is inexcusable and, as we saw yesterday, creates real dangers for youths and staff alike,” said Michael Bochenek, deputy director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “DEGASE must resolve these critical deficiencies in short order.”

Poor detention conditions and enforced idleness have prompted riots elsewhere in Brazil. In São Paulo, for example, youths in Tatuapé rebelled in February in response to rumors that they would be confined to their cells during the week of Carnaval; on March 18, youths in Raposo Tavares detention center rioted to protest mistreatment by guards. And in northern Brazil, Human Rights Watch found in a 2003 report that abusive conditions were a factor in juvenile detention center disturbances in the state of Pará.

The staffing shortages resulted from a mass dismissal in December of some 300 guards and other employees for contractual irregularities. In comments reported on March 14 in the Rio newspaper EXTRA, DEGASE director Sérgio Novo said that the department was in the process of hiring new personnel, but he did not say when that process would be completed.

Even before the current crisis, excessive use of cell confinement, inadequate staffing, lack of access to schooling, and poor hygienic conditions were routine features of Rio’s juvenile detention centers. In December, Human Rights Watch reported that overcrowding, filth, and violence pervaded the state juvenile detention system and concluded that DEGASE had failed in virtually every respect to safeguard youths’ basic human rights.