The windowless prison cell held 37 men, including “Jorge.” It was hot, and there was just enough space for the men to sleep close together on the floor. There were no mattresses. Although the room had electric lights, a narrow slit in the door was the only place sunlight and fresh air trickled through. All the men shared one bathroom. This was one of three cells in the “punishment and transfer” wing, designed for prisoners who had either broken the prison’s rules or for those transferred from other prisons for a hearing in the state capital.
Jorge fit into neither of these groups. He was locked up here after being gang raped in another prison. This cell was considered the safest place for him – despite the crowded conditions and the lack of nearby guards.
Of even greater concern, the prison authorities in Pernambuco hand-pick inmates to oversee the prisoners, giving them keys to all the cells – including punishment cells – and cellblocks. These inmates, called “keyholders,” turn prisons into their own little fiefdoms, selling drugs, charging for sleeping space and enforcing their rules with “militias.” Brazil’s terrible prison conditions allow for myriad abuses – rape among them.
The Human Rights Watch Brazil researcher, César Muñoz, arrived at Jorge’s prison with a representative of the state´s Human Rights Ombudsman – a woman who regularly visited prisons and helped prisoners, and whom inmates called “mother,” as a sign of respect. She had helped Jorge after he told her of the rape.
An associate of the keyholder in charge of the wing opened the cell. There was not a single guard in sight.
When Jorge walked out of the cell, he looked disoriented in the yard’s bright sunlight. It was Thursday, and he hadn’t left the cell since Sunday, he said. There were other inmates in the yard, but César and Jorge sat close together on stones that formed a ring around a tree, talking softly so no one could hear them. Jorge seemed anxious, constantly moving his hands and looking around.
Jorge, 28, once had a small food-delivery business in the state of Bahia, he said. A married father of two young boys, he wanted to expand the business and moved to Recife, Pernambuco’s capital. There, he started using cocaine and became addicted. In September 2014, police arrested him for alleged theft. They locked him up in a prison near Recife named the Centro de Observação Criminológica e Triagem Professor Everardo Luna. It was his first time in prison.
At first, Jorge only wanted to talk with César about the prison conditions, not the rape. But when César asked him, he began, haltingly, to tell the story. Shortly after he arrived, Jorge said, 10 men he shared the cell with put a bag over his head, tied his hands behind his back, and forced him to have anal and oral sex. The rapists threw semen in his face and hit him, he said. “I cried for help and the men were shouting and singing. Nobody came.” The attackers had knives and threatened to kill him if he talked.
He told one of the prison guards, asking for help. “Prisoners have to suffer,” the guard told him, and did nothing, Jorge said. It was almost a month later when he met the representative of the state´s Human Rights Ombudsman. She took him to a police station to report the attack. Jorge said he asked for an HIV test – the men had not used condoms – but he never received one. He was ultimately transferred to another prison.
“During the attack, I thought I would cease to exist,” Jorge said. “I feel traumatized.”
Jorge believes he was raped because he was from a different state and had no one to protect him in the prison.
After he told the story, Jorge fidgeted less. He said his wife was staying in a shelter in Recife to be close to him, but it was hard – they had to close down the business and did not have any money. At the time, he had no lawyer and had not yet seen a judge, although it was more than four months after his arrest.
César left the interview knowing that what happened to Jorge could happen to anyone.
He had already documented another case of gang rape in a prison in Pernambuco, this one of a gay man. No one knows how common rape is in Brazil’s prisons; there is no official national data on this problem. The stigma and shame around male rape in Brazil is massive, and the issue is hidden from the public.
Jorge’s story could also have gone unnoticed, César believes. Jorge said that when the ombudsman’s representative found him by chance, he was about to be moved to another prison, “as if nothing had happened.” The response of police and those in the judicial and prison system to his official complaint has been just silence. “Nobody has come to talk to me,” he said.