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Yard at the Casa de Detenção (Cadet), one of the facilities in the Pedrinhas prison complex. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

In early 2015 I entered a humid, unsanitary cell with six cement bunks for 60 men who did not even have enough floor space to lie down. While visiting the prison, in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, I saw cell keys in the hands of inmates chosen by prison authorities, while guards only patrolled external areas. I interviewed two men who had suffered gang rapes that were never investigated, let alone punished.

I could not imagine things could get much worse than that.

But they have.

On December 8th, the federal government published the first updated prison data in more than 18 months. The new data shows that the number of Brazil’s detainees leapt 17 percent to 726,700 in June 2016 from December 2014. At the same time, prison capacity actually decreased.

In June 2016, facilities were wildly overcrowded at 197 percent capacity – meaning there were two detainees per space available. In December 2014, facilities were at 167 percent capacity. Crowding in June 2016 was even worse in the states of Pernambuco and Ceará, where there were three detainees per available space, while in Amazonas there were almost five.

Jamming so many people into cells facilitates the spread of disease and makes it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control within prisons. It is a godsend for criminal gangs, which offer detainees “protection” when prison authorities do not.

Forty percent of people incarcerated in June 2016 were awaiting trial, and many have languished in detention for a shockingly long time. One of them was a 37-year-old woman I met in the civil police station in Amarante do Maranhão last month. She had been awaiting trial in her cell for two-and-a-half years, and had seen a judge only once. She could step out of her cell only three times a week, to a tiny patio, at the other side of which were the men’s cells.

Incarcerating more and more people, often in conditions that violate the most basic human rights and where they are at risk of recruitment by gangs, is not a fair or smart policy.

Authorities should expand so-called custody hearings, which allow detainees to see a judge promptly after arrest, make wider use of alternatives to prison, and increase the number of public defenders.

Brazil should also abandon its retrograde “war on drugs” policy, which fills prisons with people detained with small quantities of drugs. 

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