Brazilian officials proposed a new initiative that could improve prison conditions and reduce the sometimes years-long delays people face before seeing a judge. This change followed the release of a Human Rights Watch report on extreme overcrowding and abysmal treatment in some of Brazil’s prisons.

Our report, released in English and Portuguese, documents conditions in prisons in Pernambuco, the Brazilian state with the highest rate of overcrowding. Based on interviews in the prisons and with local officials, we found that almost 32,000 people are cramped in facilities designed to hold 10,500. In one cell, which had six cement bunks for 60 men, an inmate tied himself to the bars of the door so he could sleep sitting up, for lack of space on the floor. In that cell, the stench of sweat, feces, and mold was overpowering.

Prison authorities in Pernambuco hand-pick inmates who are given the keys of cells – essentially handing them control of the prisons. These inmates use violence and intimidation to run the facilities as personal fiefdoms.

Some prisoners shared their stories in our video, released with the report and which received more than 100,000 YouTube views in one month. Millions of Brazilians saw the shocking prison conditions as television networks in Brazil, including the TV service of São Paulo´s subway trains, broadcast the video. Brazilian media, as well as numerous publications around the world, reported on these findings.

In response to the report, the president of Pernambuco´s judiciary proposed appointing a judge to oversee Curado, the largest prison complex in the state. He also proposed increasing the number of judges for drug cases, in order to address the current extremely long delays in proceedings. The proposal also strengthens a program that provides detainees with a hearing before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. In addition, Pernambuco’s Bar Association asked a court to order inspections of the prisons in the state, also citing our report as evidence of the inhumane conditions there.

Human Rights Watch’s team in Brazil will continue to monitor the situation in Pernambuco’s prisons and urge changes that bring them into compliance with international standards.