The barbarism of Brazilian prisons

The list of atrocities committed within the Brazilian prisons is enormous including decapitations an

Police vehicles enter the Piraquara II state penitentiary during a riot on September 13 [AFP]

The Brazilian prison system is chaotic and violent. Punishment is still seen by Brazilian society as a form of revenge. The indifference, omission, or even the consent of society and public officials with the barbarism that exists in the prison system are the principal barriers to its transformation.

The list of atrocities committed within the system is enormous. Some of these include murder, decapitation, overcrowding, torture, unwarrantable hygiene conditions and searches of visiting relatives. Mothers, sisters, wives and even children, when visiting detainees, are subjected to humiliating searches. These often include stripping off all clothes and crouching over a mirror to prove that they are not carrying drugs or other objects internally.

The Brazilian state that is responsible for this constant torture and ill-treatment doesn’t guarantee the security of its detainees. Last year, images of decapitated bodies in a prison in the state of Maranhao shocked the country, but it did not provoke any structural changes in the system. Again in August, two more detainees were decapitated during an act of rebellion in a penitentiary in Parana state.

Some prisons have been the subject of proceedings at the Inter-American Court and Commission of Human Rights for years. Sentences and numerous cautionary measures have been issued, but little changes while the situation worsens – like a ticking bomb.

Harsh statistics

The Brazilian prison system reflects the violence in the country and the inefficiency of its criminal justice system. Brazil has the highest number of homicides in the world with a rate of 56,000 in 2012. This amounts to almost 29 homicides per 100,000 people.

Brazilian inmates ordering attacks on the outside

Philosopher and jurist Cesare Beccaria says that as as far back as the 18th century, that which prevented a crime is the certainty of punishment, not the severity of the penalty. In this way, public security as provided by the Brazilian state (not just the executive, but also the judiciary and the legislative) is extremely inefficient. 

Less than eight percent of homicides lead to criminal charges in Brazil. Investigations are deficient and this deficiency starts with the existence of only two police forces that communicate poorly with each another.

There are also other issues, including the lack of independent and structured forensic investigations; a lack of facts, statistics and public security indicators; weaknesses in strategic planning; and institutional coordination between public security organs and the 27 federal states. Each Brazilian state possesses its own police and prison system and there is no shared database or coordinated action.

Between 2004 and 2014, the number of people detained in Brazil increased by 67.5 percent, totalling a prison population of nearly 564,000 people. If house arrest is taken into account, the total prison population in Brazil reaches more than 711,000 people, the world’s third largest, after the United States and China. This huge growth in numbers of incarcerated people has generated enormous pressure on an already precarious system. As many as 206,307 prisoners must leave the system in 2014 in order to absorb the vacancy deficit which exists.

Out of the total number of people detained inside the system, 40 percent are provisional detainees. The penal process is slow and selective, being more severe with certain crimes and suspect profiles: especially young black men.  

Roughly 25 percent of prisoners are incarcerated on drugs charges, the majority of which are petty dealers who come from poor backgrounds. The Brazilian state has killed many in Brazil’s slums and “favelas” in its ongoing war on drugs. Yet, it also arrests young people and puts them in jail or provisional detention for minor crimes without implementing safeguards to avoid the brutalisation of those young men while in prison, turning them into easy targets for organised crime and criminal factions.

More than 60 percent of prisoners in the country have not completed basic primary education. The majority are young and black.

Inequality in selectivity

Selectivity begins when a police officer apprehends a suspect in the street or in poor communities. The profile of the suspect is nearly always that of a poor, black, young man. It continues as the prosecutor and the judge decide the legitimacy of the arrest.

Inequality and discrimination also occur when the state doesn’t offer legal assistance. Those who have access to good lawyers are rarely taken into custody.

More than 60 percent of prisoners in the country have not completed basic primary education. The majority are young and black. Few crimes relating to larceny, corruption, tax evasion, financial crimes and so-called white collar crime are investigated and when they are, convictions are rare. At the same time, many people are imprisoned for crimes with low risk of danger. For example, roughly 40,000 people are imprisoned for simple theft, where there has been no violence or threat. 

Profound reform of the criminal justice system and the Brazilian prison system is urgent. Even now, in the 21st century, Brazil has medieval prisons, where people under arrest, many of these provisionally, are treated inhumanely.

It was not surprising when a recent research undertaken by Amnesty International in 20 countries in the context of the global “Stop Torture” campaign, showed that Brazil is the country where most people fear torture if taken into custody by public officials – 80 percent of Brazilians confirmed this.

Few political and social leaders in the country defend humanisation of the prison system. It’s necessary that the international community take notice of this situation and pressures the Brazilian state to take effective measures regarding the respect and dignity of people in prison, and to end torture and ill-treatment against prisoners and their families.

Alexandre Ciconello is a lawyer and human rights expert from American University, Washington DC. He is responsible for monitoring the issues of public security and justice system at Amnesty International Brazil.