UN calls for reduction of prisoner numbers in Brazil

Report of the rapporteur on torture is the first in 15 years

The United Nations published yesterday, February 24, the report from the visit made in August last year by the special rapporteur on torture, the Argentine Juan Méndez. The document, which shall be officially presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 8, is one of the most critical ever released by the organization on the Brazilian prison system. In addition to confirming the frequent practice of torture and mistreatment, the rapporteur firmly calls for the reduction of the Brazilian prison population.

  • Click here to read the report in full.

There are currently more than 700,000 people in prison in Brazil – a population higher than some state capitals such as Cuiabá or Aracaju. The Brazilian incarceration rate (number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants), of 193, has also grown rapidly in recent years while the rates of other countries at the top of the list have fallen or remained stable.

According to Vivian Calderoni, a lawyer for the Justice program at Conectas, the key aspect of the report is its identification of structural issues that have long been denounced by human rights organizations, but that are rarely acknowledged and debated by society.

“Based on this report, Brazil should seriously discuss mass incarceration, its origins, complications and consequences,” she said. “The UN has demonstrated that our punitive zeal has no grounding in international law, calling into question the widely held view, even among executors of the law, that imprisonment should be the rule, not the exception. The rapporteur draws on all his academic and international experience to illustrate that the path take by the country is not only negative, but extremely dangerous,” she added.

According to Camila Asano, coordinator of the Foreign Policy and Human Rights program at Conectas, the report has created an opportunity for Brazil to make headway in the struggle against torture. “The authorities ought to take the publication of the report seriously and view it as a chance to make progress on key human rights issues, by applying in practice the recommendations made by one of the leading authorities on the topic,” she said.

Understand the 10 main points of the report:

1. Overcrowding: the rapporteur said Brazil should focus on reducing the prison population rather than building new facilities. He also identified the need to reduce the number of pre-trial detainees (41%) and the amount of time they spend waiting for a preliminary hearing, of five months on average. One of the consequences of overcrowding, said Méndez, is that the detention conditions in most facilities are cruel, inhuman and degrading. He visited one cell designed for eight people that was being used to hold 58.

2. Torture and mistreatment: the practice of torture is frequent in the country, despite being substantially under-reported, and it occurs mainly at the time of the arrest by the police and inside the prisons. The rapporteur expressed his extreme concern over the fact that the mistreatment has been “naturalized” by inmates. Méndez also emphasized the need for states to create mechanisms to combat and prevent torture, similar to the one that already exists on the federal level. Currently, only two states have such a mechanism in place.

3. Drug Law: today, more than a third of men and 63% of women in prison are there for drug-related crimes. The majority, said the rapporteur, are users who sell small quantities to support their own addiction. According to Méndez, these cases should be dealt with by non-custodial measures.

4. Institutional racism: 67% of prisoners are black. This population, according to the evaluation of the rapporteur, stands a significantly higher chance of being the victim of mass incarceration, police violence, torture, mistreatment, medical neglect and receiving harsher sentences – which suggests a “high degree of institutional racism”.

5. Abusive search: Mendéz drew attention to the violence committed against the relatives of prisoners, namely the abusive search administered when entering prisons on visitation days. He “strongly urges the abolition of these methods” and recommended the approval of bill 7764/14 that bans these searches across the country.

6. Pedrinhas: the Maranhão state prison complex, the stage of more than 60 killings in 2013, was the only visited facility to be addressed seperately in the report. According to Méndez, despite the reduction in the number of killings, the “conditions in Pedrinhas remain explosive” and could lead to a new wave of violence affecting inmates, their relatives and prison personnel.

7. Privatization of prisons: one of the facilities visited by the rapporteur was wholly privatized. The rapporteur said he is skeptical about privately run prisons, since it has proven to be problematic in other countries, and he stated that privatization can aggravate overpopulation in publicly run prisons, as well as blur the lines of accountability in cases of abuse.

8. Detention hearings: in an extensive section on these hearings, Méndez welcomed the adoption of detention hearings as one of the “most important public policy initiatives to tackle problems of arbitrary arrest and torture”, but he called for their expansion and improvement, mainly by eliminating the constraints that prevent suspects from openly making complaints of mistreatment and torture.

9.  Police violence: the rapporteur dedicated a significant part of the report to the use of force by the police. He mentioned the more than 2,200 deaths caused by police operations in 2013 – an average of six people a day – and stressed the need to approve the bill (4.471/12) that abolishes the classification ‘resistance followed by death’ in police reports and creates procedures to investigate these killings. He also emphasized the importance of forensic services being better trained and institutionally independent, and he called for and end to the indiscriminate use of in flagrante delicto arrests.

10. Adolescents: Méndez was vocal against legislative bills that violate rights established in international treaties and in Brazil’s own Child and Adolescent Statute. In particular, he condemned the bill that lowers the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years and another that lengthens the maximum detention time from three to 10 years, both of which are pending in Congress. The rapporteur also criticized the conditions in the youth detention system, which “seem, in practice, to function in a very similar way to adult prisons”.

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