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Behind Bars in Brazil (Review of Human Rights Watch Report)

Reviewed by Julia Lutsky

Since Brazil is the largest nation in Latin America it comes as no surprise to know that its prisons hold more people than do the prisons of any other Latin American nation. Its prison problems are magnified versions of those found nearly everywhere in modern prisons: most significant among them the overcrowding of poor prisoners into run down facilities. The sheer size of the prison system intensifies the opportunity for abuse behind walls. So reports Human Rights Watch in their report, Behind Bars in Brazil, issued in December, 1998.

The report abounds with examples of both guard-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prisoner abuse. There is in Brazil, however, a high rate of violent crime which has resulted in a high degree of public apathy toward the possible existence of this abuse. How much of the public's fear of crime and apathy toward possible abuses against prisoners is caused by media reporting rather than by the high crime rate itself is not addressed. In any case, the extent of abuse visited on prisoners is either unknown to the general Brazilian public, or it is accepted as it is here: well deserved since "prison[ers are] criminals - [and] not worthy of concern."

Brazilian prisoners, like prisoners everywhere, "come almost exclusively from the young, poor, uneducated, and politically powerless margins of society." Most are male. It is also true that, though prisons are expensive in and of themselves to run, the "penal system's defects are in great part due to an absence of political will to remedy them rather than a shortage of funds. Some of the most extreme cruelties visited upon Brazilian [prisoners], such as summary executions, ... can in no way be attributed to meager public resources."

Brazil's prisons, like most in the United States, are run from the state level. The penal laws, however, are federally legislated and so, are the same throughout the country. Though the states differ in their application, the general policy is one in which one branch of the state's executive, the judiciary, runs the prisons, while another, the security -- which runs the police -- runs the lockups. Overcrowding is present in both types of facilities, but authorities, aware that greater numbers of confined persons mean greater possibility of explosion, tend to try to limit the number of prisoners they will accept from lockups.

There are 170,000 prisoners in 512 prisons and thousands of police lockups. The Brazilian rate of incarceration, however, of 108 per 100,000 inhabitants, is moderate, lower than in many countries nearby, and more than 500 lower than the rate in the United States. The most common crime is robbery; other common offenses are theft, homicide and drug trafficking. The official estimate of overcrowding in prison facilities translates into 2.3 prisoners for every space available. Where HRW could obtain information with respect to racial distribution in prisons, it found no significant difference from that of the general population though "blacks are overrepresented: roughly half of all prisoners are white, while 17 percent are black and 30 percent are mixed (mulato)."

The lack of proper medical care is one of the greatest of prisoner complaints. HRW investigators report that they "did not meet a single qualified doctor during all [their] prison visits; instead, [they found] prison infirmaries run by [prisoner] employees." There are high levels of respiratory infection, skin rashes, and digestive disease; venereal disease is epidemic. HRW estimates that AIDS and tuberculosis together are the most serious of the diseases suffered and the leading causes of death in Brazilian prisons. "In addition, poor sanitary conditions are responsible for numerous bacterial and parasitic maladies."

Shortages make it advantageous to prison officials to facilitate family visits since these are often the only means by which a prisoner may obtain bedding, clothing and sufficient food. Prisoners in prisons, as opposed to lockups, can work: they sell what they produce and are entitled to the income the goods produce. This is often the only source of income they have, not only for their own supplies, but for the families which depend on them. Conjugal visiting is the norm; administrators conclude it eases tensions, often high, between prisoners.

This 170 page report, Behind Bars in Brazil, written by Joanne Mariner, is available in English and Spanish from Human Rights Watch at 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor, New York, N.Y. 10118-3299 at a cost of $10. It is also available at HRW's web site: .

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