By Kaitlyn Degnan
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s correctional system has often been criticized for its overcrowding, but a new report released last week by Human Rights Watch sheds light on the wide scope of the problem. The report illustrates an environment of overcrowding and corruption.
The problem is most pronounced in Pernambuco, a small northeastern state. Prisons there are meant to hold a maximum of 10,500 inmates at a time. They currently hold about 32,000 inmates, which is about three times its intended capacity. Currently, there is a thirty prisoner to one guard ratio.
Due to severe understaffing, many of Brazil’s prisons, including Pernambuco, are not controlled by guards, but by inmates. In their report, Human Rights Watch described the use of “keyholders” to maintain order in Brazil’s severely overcrowded prisons.
These keyholders, designated by penitentiary staff, maintain control over almost all aspects of life in the prisons, including the sale of drugs. Keyholders are usually backed by “militias” – strongmen who beat, threaten, and extort other prisoners.
Keyholders themselves usually have private cells, with amenities such as televisions and bathrooms. They often charge inmates about 2,000 reais (the equivalent of USD 530) for a portion of a cell and often require payment of weekly “taxes” to avoid beatings.
Prison staff maintain control over outside pavilions, the areas surrounding multiple cell blocks. Officials have been accused of turning a blind eye to the corruption, or receiving kickbacks.
Sixty percent of inmates have not been convicted and are still awaiting trial. A large number of prisoners in Pernambuco are awaiting custody hearings, wherein a judge makes a determination whether to hold or release the arrestee pending trial. Pernambuco only began providing these hearings in August 2015. Arrestees are entitled to these hearings under international law.
Additionally, there is no separation of those awaiting trial and those convicted of lesser crimes and convicted violent criminals. Packed, unsanitary conditions have led to outbreaks of tuberculosis, HIV and sexual violence amongst prisoners.
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