(São Paulo) – The Brazilian state of Pernambuco has effectively turned over its vastly overcrowded prisons to hand-picked inmate “keyholders,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Pernambuco prison system holds more than three times as many inmates as its official capacity in conditions that are dangerous, unhealthy, and violate regional and international standards.
The 31-page report, “‘The State Let Evil Take Over’: The Prison Crisis in the Brazilian State of Pernambuco,” documents how prison authorities have ceded control of detention facilities to the “keyholders,” who sell drugs and sleeping space to fellow detainees, and deploy violent “militias” to enforce their rule, according to former detainees, family members, and two state officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
“Overcrowding is a major problem in Brazil´s prisons and nowhere else it is more severe than in Pernambuco,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The state has packed tens of thousands of people into cellblocks designed for a third as many people, and turned over the keys to inmates who use violence and intimidation to run the prison grounds as personal fiefdoms.”
Human Rights Watch visited four prisons in Pernambuco earlier in 2015 and interviewed 40 inmates and former inmates, as well as their relatives, prison authorities, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and police officers.
Brazil’s prisons hold more than 607,000 people in facilities designed for about 377,000. In Pernambuco the lack of space is even direr, since the state houses almost 32,000 inmates in facilities with capacity for 10,500, according to official data. Fifty-nine percent of detainees are awaiting trial and are incarcerated with convicted prisoners, in violation of international and Brazilian law.