Skip to main content

(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.

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.
Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil director

“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. 

During one of our visits, Human Rights Watch saw a cell with six cement bunks for 60 men where there was not enough space on the floor for all to lie down. Poor sanitation and ventilation, combined with overcrowding and lack of adequate medical care, allow the spread of disease. The prevalence of tuberculosis in Pernambuco’s prisons is 100 times that of the general population.

The Pernambuco prisons are severely short-staffed, with less than one guard for every 30 prisoners, the worst ratio in Brazil, according to the Justice Ministry. At one prison that holds 2,300 inmates – a “semi-open” facility where some inmates are allowed to come and go for work – only four guards are on duty per shift.

The extreme overcrowding and lack of sufficient staff make it impossible for prison authorities to exercise adequate control within the prison grounds. Instead they delegate authority to a single inmate within each pavilion – fenced-in areas within the prison walls that usually contain multiple cell blocks and more than 100 inmates. The chosen inmates are given the keys to the pavilion.
The “keyholder” of Pavilion 7 at Presídio Juiz Antônio Luiz L. de Barros (PJALLB), in Recife. A keyholder is an inmate chosen by prison authorities to maintain control inside prison pavilions. © 2015 César Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch

The keyholders sell drugs, extort payments from fellow prisoners, and require them to pay for places to sleep. They deploy inmate “militias” to threaten and beat those who do not pay their debts. Prison officials either turn a blind eye or participate in the keyholders’ illicit activities and receive kickbacks, several people, including a prison director, told Human Rights Watch.

Extreme overcrowding also puts detainees at risk of sexual violence. Two detainees interviewed said they had been gang raped. Both reported the attacks to guards, who ignored the reports, the victims said.

Brazilian authorities are fully aware of the abuses in Curado, the largest prison complex in Pernambuco. In 2011, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations – Catholic Church Prison Ministry (Pastoral Carcerária), Global Justice (Justiça Global), Ecumenical Service of Advocacy in Prisons (Serviço Ecumênico de Militância nas Prisões), and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic – brought the matter before the Inter-American Human Rights System. In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Brazil to guarantee the security of detainees, prison personnel, and visitors at Curado. At a hearing in Costa Rica on September 28, 2015, the coalition asked the Court to issue a new resolution to require that the state protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and other vulnerable detainees, and to have federal authorities investigate cases of violence and corruption, among other measures.
Makeshift “barracos,” or cubicles, inside Pavilion 7 at Presídio Juiz Antônio Luiz L. de Barros (PJALLB), in Recife. © 2015 César Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch

A major factor contributing to the overcrowding has been the failure to provide “custody hearings.” These hearings, in which a detainee appears before a judge promptly after being arrested to determine the legality and necessity of the state’s request to keep them in detention, are required under international law but have not – until recently – been provided to detainees in Pernambuco or most other Brazilian states. In addition to ruling on whether a detainee should be held or released pending trial, the hearings allow a judge to examine detainees for evidence of police brutality. Without custody hearings, detainees waiting to see a judge for the first time may spend many months in overcrowded prisons, and forensic evidence of any police abuse may also disappear during that time.

Pernambuco had not previously held these hearings. But on August 14, it began providing custody hearings to detainees allegedly caught in the act of committing a crime in Recife, the state capital.

A Human Rights Watch report of a similar program in the state of Maranhão found that custody hearings helped prevent the unlawful arbitrary imprisonment of suspected nonviolent offenders while they awaited trial.

Pernambuco should implement custody hearings promptly in the whole state, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, Brazil´s Congress should approve a pending bill that mandates custody hearings throughout the country.

Pernambuco also needs to take urgent steps to address the extreme overcrowding and inhumane conditions, stop delegating control of prison facilities to keyholders, and address severe delays in the judicial process that violate the rights of detainees and overcrowd the prison system.


“By meeting its obligations to protect people from arbitrary incarceration, Pernambuco can at the same time ease the overcrowding that contributes to unsanitary, degrading, and unsafe conditions in its prisons,” Canineu said.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country