Prisons controlled by criminal gangs rather than guards and filled with moldy and windowless cells stinking of urine and feces in which dozens of men are forced to compete for floor space on which to sleep — life for inmates in Brazil's state of Pernambuco amounts to a "human rights disaster," according to a new report released on Tuesday.
The report was compiled by the US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) that visited four prisons and interviewed past and current prisoners, their families, and security officials in the poverty stricken northeastern state.
"Pernambuco has specific problems but is, at the same time, representative of the Brazilian prison system as a whole," César Muñoz of HRW told VICE News.
The report highlights the problem of overcrowding that is most pronounced in Pernambuco among Brazil's 27 states. The state has space for 10,500 prisoners, but in August this year held more than three times that amount, according to official figures. Its Igarassu prison housed 3,788 prisoners crammed into cells designed for 507 people. The Curado Complex has space for 1,800 people, but held around 7,000.
Overcrowding is also rampant throughout Brazil — home to the world's fourth-biggest incarcerated population after the United States, China and Russia. The Brazilian prison population grew by 161 percent from 2000 to 2014 to reach 607,000 inmates in June last year, crammed into facilities designed to take a maximum of 376,000. The Brazilian Bar Association told VICE News earlier this year it believed Brazil's prison population had already reached around 680,000.
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The Human Rights Watch report links overcrowding in Pernambuco's jails to the domination over the prison population of vicious criminal gangs — such as the infamous PCC and Bonde dos 40 factions. Some of Brazil's prisons are completely controlled by the gangs, which are responsible for drug trafficking and robberies and have showed they are even able to orchestrate revenge killings on the outside from their cells.
The prisons HRW visited were scarcely supervised by official guards who, the report said, had largely given up trying to impose any order themselves and instead relied on so-called chaveiros, or keyholders. The keyholders tend to be the most imposing prisoners, often with convictions for murder, and the report found evidence suggesting officials accepted bribes to nominate particular inmates for the role.
"We found that prison authorities select certain inmates to keep control over a pavilion – a number of blocks with a fenced-in yard. That person literally has the keys. There are no guards inside," Muñoz said. "It's his own little fiefdom."
The chaveiro becomes the gateway to buying a place to sleep in an overcrowded jail, the report found. He also controls the drugs going in and out of the prison.
The filthy, cramped conditions have also helped ensure that tuberculosis is 100 times more prevalent among Pernambuco's prisoners than it is among the general population. The rate of HIV infection is 42 times higher than in the outside world. Sexual violence – including incidents of gang rape – are rarely reported or investigated, according to the report.
The report said one of the many roots for the extreme overcrowding in Pernambuco's prisons lies in a 2007 local government programme called the Pacto Pela Vida or Pact for Life. This policy improved coordination between different police forces and provides rewards to officers who arrest more people. HRW claims the policy has led to a rapid bloating of the state's prison population that has increased by 68 percent since 2007, almost three times the increase in capacity.
Nationwide, the report blames overcrowding on the high proportion of inmates in pre-trial detention. The number of prisoners across Brazil who have not been found guilty of anything stands at an already high 41 percent, and at 59 percent in Pernambuco. Many detainees are not even accused of violent crimes.
Existing efforts to eliminate near-automatic pre-trial detention after arrest, and instead take detainees before judges to evaluate whether this is really necessary, are proving successful but moving slowly, HRW said. A pilot project currently being implemented in Brazilian state capitals has slashed the number of arrested suspects sent to jail from 90 to 40 percent in São Luís, Maranhão state. Pernambuco's capital, Recife, became one of the last to begin the project in August this year.
The Brazilian justice ministry responded to the report with a statement on Tuesday recognizing that "there is a need for improvement in Pernambuco."
The statement underlined the government's renewed commitment to seek pre-trial detention of suspects only as "an extreme measure." It also addressed the issue of criminal domination of jails by assuring "steps are being taken to curb the subordination of one prisoner to another."
Overcrowding, however, could just be about to get even worse given moves to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 for crimes such as homicide and rape, as well as bodily harm and robbery if the victim dies of the injuries sustained. The measure is supported by 87% of the population, according to a June survey by the Datafolha polling institute.
Already approved by Brazil's lower house of Congress, the reform is now facing some opposition in the Senate and from the government of President Dilma Rousseff. Earlier this year Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo warned that the measure would mean up to 40,000 minors entering the prison system every year.
Overcrowding is already widely recognized as a major cause of the country's frequent violent prison riots.
Last week inmates in the city of Guarapuava, in the southern state of Paraná, overran a prison demanding to be transferred to other facilities.
Last year, at another prison in the same state, two hostages were thrown to their deaths from the roof of the facility, and two others were decapitated and their heads used to torture other hostages.
Fifty-nine inmates were killed in a riot in the northeastern state of Maranhão in 2013.
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