Brazil must address prison overcrowding and implement measures against torture – UN expert

Photo: UN/MINUSTAH/Victoria Hazou

14 August 2015 – A United Nations human rights expert today called on Brazilian Federal and State authorities to urgently address the issue of prison overcrowding in the country and show genuine commitment to implement measures against torture.

“Many of the facilities visited are severely overcrowded – in some instances close to three times their actual capacity,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez.

“This leads to chaotic conditions inside the facilities, and greatly impacts on the living conditions of inmates and their access to legal defence, health care, psycho-social support, work and education opportunities, as well as sun, fresh air and recreation.”

Mr. Méndez call comes at the end of 12-day official visit to Brazil, where he conducted unannounced visits to places of detention such as police stations, pre-trial facilities, penitentiaries, juvenile detention centres, as well as mental health institutions, points out a press release.

Through these visits, the independent expert saw how severe overcrowding generates tension and a violent atmosphere, in which physical and psychological ill-treatment of inmates becomes the norm.

“The use of pepper spray, tear gas, noise bombs and rubber bullets by the prison personnel is frequent, as are severe beatings and kicking,” he said, noting that prison personnel serving inside the penitentiaries are often heavily armed, including with assault rifles, shotguns and hand guns.

The expert noted with concern “the absence of a robust policy to deal with occurrences of torture, the lack of accountability for them, and the likelihood that this state of affairs will perpetuate, and even exacerbate this practice, both in number and severity.”

The Special Rapporteur welcomed the measures taken so far, or envisioned, to fight torture and ill-treatment, such as the establishment of the National Preventive Mechanism following Brazil’s ratification of the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture, the National Committee to Prevent and Combat Torture.

“However,” he stressed, “more efforts are needed to ensure a nationwide implementation of the safeguards offered by these institutions and procedures.”

Among other measures, the expert recommended the competent Brazilian authorities to immediately expand the application of custody hearings to the entire country, and re-design them to encourage victims to speak up and to allow for effective documentation of torture or ill-treatment. Custody hearings have the benefit of reducing the disproportionately high number of pre-trial inmates – currently 40 per cent – and to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

The Special Rapporteur furthermore expressed concern at the proposed constitutional amendment, currently pending in Congress, to lower the age of criminal responsibility of children to 16 years instead of 18, as well as another proposal to extend the maximum length of detention in a socio-educational facility, from the current three years to up to 10 years.

“Prosecuting adolescent offenders as adults would violate Brazil’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the expert said. “In addition, approval of these proposals would worsen the currently already seriously overcrowded penitentiaries throughout Brazil.”


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN rights expert warns that all Brazilians must have access to water, sanitation

Related Stories