Human Rights Watch report criticises prison overcrowding in Brazil

Brasil Observer - Jan 18 2017
Riot police men enter Raimundo Vidal Pessoa public jail in Manaus, where inmates brought in from other prisons were protesting overcrowding.Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Alana Gandra reports from Agência Brasil

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised Brazil’s prison overcrowding problem in its World Report released Thursday (Jan 12), citing the country’s 2006 anti-drug law as one of the underlying causes.

“[That law] introduced harsher punishment for drug trafficking, and while it also allowed for alternative penalties including community service for [drug] users, it used vague language, leaving it up to police to tell users from traffickers,” said HRW Brazil Director Maria Laura Canineu.

She argued drug users should not be put among traffickers to serve their jail sentences, and advocated a revision of Brazil’s drug war policy to better address the prison system issues, as about 60% of the male prison population and nearly 30% of the female is jailed on drug charges. “These figures are too large to be ignored,” she said.

The HRW report also emphasised the need to isolate defendants jailed in custody to await trial from convicts serving jail sentences, and went on to suggest separating dangerous inmates from less aggressive ones and based on their gang affiliations, in an attempt to avoid clashes between rival groups like the one that ended up in a massacre in Manaus, Amazonas, in the first week of this year.

The juvenile detention system was also criticised for serving to recruit young criminals while it fails in its mission to reintegrate juvenile offenders into the community.


Police killings

Human Rights Watch raised a red flag on the number of killings committed by police officers, and urged the need to investigate and hold them accountable, while pointing out a large number of police officers are also murdered in the country.

The Brazilian Public Security Forum reports that 393 police officers were killed in Brazil in 2015. That same year, police forces killed 3,345 people, 6% more than in 2014, and 52% more than in 2013. In Rio de Janeiro, deaths resulting from police action jumped by 30% between 2015 and 2016. According to HRW Brazil Director Maria Laura Canineu, it is not known how many of those deaths resulted from clashes or were outright executions.


Positive developments

Despite the criticism, the HWR report also recognised Brazil’s progress when it comes to protecting human rights, including the expansion of a custody hearings programme run by the National Justice Council (CNJ), which gives prisoners the opportunity to be brought before judges following their arrest.

Another important development mentioned by the report was the enhancement of the Ministry of Justice’s National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combatting of Torture.
*Translated by Mayra Borges

Read more: How the war on drugs fuels deadly prison riots in Brazil