(São Paulo) – Brazil needs to seize control of its prison system from gangs and guarantee the safety of all detainees, Human Rights Watch said today.

A relative of a prisoner holds a local newspaper, which shows a headline about a deadly prison riot, in front of Anisio Jobim prison in Manaus, Brazil, on January 3, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

“During the past several decades, Brazilian authorities have increasingly abdicated their responsibility to maintain order and security in prisons,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “That failure violates the rights of prisoners and is a boon to gangs, who use prisons as recruiting grounds.”

On January 1 and 2, 2017, 60 detainees died in two prisons in the state of Amazonas, allegedly as a result of gang violence. Another 22 were killed in prisons in Roraima, Rondônia, and Acre in October 2016. Under Brazilian as well as international human rights law, Brazil’s government is obligated to protect prisoners from violence and abuse behind bars. Prisoners in Brazil are three times as likely to be homicide victims as members of the general population, according to the Ministry of Justice.

The country’s prisons, built to hold about 372,000 people, held more than 622,000 in 2014, the last year for which official data exists. Overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control within many facilities, leaving inmates vulnerable to violence and gang activity, as Human Rights Watch documented in the states of Pernambuco and Maranhão.

During the past several decades, Brazilian authorities have increasingly abdicated their responsibility to maintain order and security in prisons. That failure violates the rights of prisoners and is a boon to gangs, who use prisons as recruiting grounds.

Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil director

The National Council of Criminal and Prison Policy determined in 2009 that prisons should have at least one guard for every 5 detainees. But that standard goes unmet in most states. The ratio of guards to inmates in Amazonas prisons was only one to almost 10 in 2014. In some prisons Human Rights Watch visited, guards only patrol the outside perimeter and some prison grounds and do not enter cellblocks.

Brazil’s prison population increased 85 percent from 2004 to 2014. Forty percent of inmates are awaiting trial, and many are housed alongside convicted prisoners, in contravention of human rights principles and Brazilian law. Brazil should reduce overcrowding by bringing timely justice to every person arrested. Judges should also make wider use of alternatives to prison both before trial and in sentencing, as allowed by Brazilian law.

Brazil also needs to reform its approach to drugs. The current policy of criminalizing drug use, production, and distribution has fueled the growth of criminal organizations. It has also filled prisons with people detained for possession of small quantities of drugs, who become vulnerable, while incarcerated, to recruitment by gangs.

“Detainees often join gangs to protect their lives behind bars and remain affiliated after release,” Canineu said. “As long as the state fails to guarantee the safety of all detainees, gangs will continue to grow, endangering security both inside and outside the prison walls.”