Scenes of torture, extreme overcrowding and lack of educational projects, some FEBEM units in the state of São
Paulo, Brazil, function as prisons where the principles of the Brazilian Child and Adolescent Code are buried.
The challenge for lawyer members of the Working Group for the Implementation of ECA (the Child and Adolescent
Code), linked to the bar's Human Rights Commission, is to expose the irregularities that have been historically practiced in
diverse institutions of the State Foundation for the Well-being of Minors, FEBEM-São Paulo. In two years of work, they can
attest that many units of FEBEM function as prisons and fail to fulfill their socio-educational mission that the law demands.
It is true that the São Paulo Bar has persistently denounced the extreme overcrowding, the continuing practice of
torture and the absence of educational and social projects. "Discovering what happens behind those walls is a challenge.
Despite the promises of transparency by its current director, FEBEM continues to demand prior notice of the lawyers' visits to
the institutions," says João José Sady, coordinator of the Human Rights Commission. "The only trustworthy information
that we have is the result of investigation and work with other social agencies that exist independently of FEBEM.
According to Sady, intense pressure was necessary to be able to enter the units and reveal the extent of the violence
to public opinion. "Even with prior notice given for the visits, we witnessed horrendous cases of heads swathed in
bandages from beatings, nails pulled out and rapes," according to Ariel de Castro Alves, activist for six years as coordinator of
the Working Group for the Implementation of ECA. "Furthermore, the prohibition of free access only strengthens the thesis
that the torture is done with the collusion of the administration. Even the Protective Counselors suffer criminally illegal
restrictions by the administration," he states.
Despite its bankruptcy, the prison model predominates in FEBEM. The complex of units in the town of Franco da
Rocha, for example, functions as a penitentiary and concentrates youths who have broken the law, sometimes more than once.
The concentration there of youths with this profile allows other units in other locations to have a better appearance, but
nonetheless they equally have no unified pedagogical project. "Each unit reflects the quality of the shift boss, who is
politically selected," Sady observes.
The always alleged lack of funds is not the cause of the breakdown. The State of São Paulo destines a million dollars
to FEBEM. Poorer states, like Pará and Roraima, already have developed models that result in low rates of recidivism, and
they have received prizes from ILANUD (the U.N.'s Latin American institution for crime prevention and delinquent
treatment). "Here, what is lacking is the application of the law," says Ariel de Castro. In practice, ECA requires small units, for up
to 40 people, division by type of infraction and age, and the implementation of a socio-educational project that gives the
adolescent other future possibilities.
Another specialist in the subject, the lawyer Francisco Lúcio França, member of the Working Group and of the
organization Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again) hopes for the transfer of the units from state to municipal
administration to make the institutions work. "Today the Franco da Rocha complex maintains youth who are long distances from their
homes, and whose families have no economic resources to be able to visit them," he observes.
Defined by França as "a child concentration camp" the complex at Franco da Rocha received two visits by the bar
association. The first, in November, 2002, resulted in a report with the suggestive title of "Torture Center for Young
People and Adolescents." The second, in June, 2003, saw repeated evidence of gross irregularities. Before this, there were
denunciations of bad treatment and torture in the document "Lives Wasted," by Amnesty International.
In the nine units of the complex are 900 adolescents. Units 30 and 31, that house more than half of the detained
population of the complex, have had their closure judicially mandated on various occasions, but they have continued to be used
"provisionally" for over three years. Only now, with the inauguration of Vila Maria, unit 30 is being shut down. "However,
Vila Maria is a long way from being a solution," says Ariel de Castro.
With its capacity for 120 residents, the new unit replicates the prison model of extreme restriction and simply
changes the address of the problem. "The way that they are treated, they will return in worse form to society," the lawyer warns,
as he reminds us that each month approximately 20 former residents of FEBEM are killed upon returning to crime. It is
suspected that they are victims of extermination groups.
In Franco da Rocha and in other large complexes, such as in Tatuapé and Raposo Tavares, there is the system called
"leather and harness." It consists in leaving the youth locked up for 24 hours, with only their underwear, without mattress or
other covers. If there is any movement, groups of 30 to 40 employees enter the cells and beat the victims randomly with
pieces of iron or wood which are covered with rags to diminish bruising.
Suffocation is also used in order not to leave marks, explains Ariel de Castro. "They choose the most rebellious
adolescent and put his head under water until it turns purple. The others are obliged to watch while on their knees while at the same
time they also are beaten. This was verified this June, and Amnesty International, which accompanied the visit, was shocked
with the situation."
And these are not isolated incidents. Of the 231 adolescents visited, nearly 80 exhibited marks of maltreatment. "We
noted furthermore that the targets are principally knees and elbows, so as not to leave evidence. It is a recycling of torture,"
the lawyer affirms. The cruelty of the situation has also mobilized the Department of Justice. Last year, investigations at the
Tatuapé unit revealed the presence of instruments of torture in the administration office, which generated criminal proceedings
and a determination of pre-trial detention for fourteen employees, eleven of whom fled prior to their imprisonment.
Since then, the prosecutors involved have received threats as they called the youths to make pre-trial depositions.
The actions of the Working Group of the bar association, in their turn, have resulted in at least seven lawsuits, in which 98
employees of FEBEM will respond to accusations of having practiced torture.
Since he embraced this cause, João Sady witnessed the departure of three of FEBEM's directors. The employees
most identified with reactionary policies reacted against the transfer of FEBEM to the Department of Education and to the
selection of the current president, the prosecutor Paulo Sérgio de Oliveira, who arrived promising changes and transparency.
"There is a sensation today that he is trying to fix the airplane while in flight and he is unable to fulfill his obligation to
humanize the institution," affirms Sady.
In reaction, the employees actually incited rebellions among the interned youth. Their reaction has its root in that
which Sady calls the "mafia of the big guys." The existence of this important group is pointed out also by the lawyer Francisco
Lúcio França, who says that it is responsible for the dismissal of the employees that do not become accessories to torture.
Worse yet, the group guarantees protection for those that use violent methods.
"There is a culture of impunity," he says. Ariel de Castro mentions that "In the shadows of impunity the cases
multiply of employees who form gangs. These groups are being investigated for facilitating escapes. Another benefit gained from
the rebellions is that in these crises, the salaries of the employee gangs can quadruple."
According to João Sady, there are indications that in the last 10 years FEBEM has been directed by a group of
powerful people. Furthermore, he thinks, "There should not be an institution like FEBEM without career plans and continuous
education for the employees." In fact, a monitor, who deals directly with the interned youth, receives three days of training.
"The trainee will learn how to handle a billy club. Then imagine a group of eight monitors to manage a group of 500
delinquents. The resulting beating becomes banalized, and worse, a form of power." The solution would be in the implantation of
small, more controllable units and in the development of adequate methods of containment. The question is when is this going
In 68 institutions of internment, FEBEM of the state of São Paulo houses about six thousand adolescents between 12
and 21 years old, who have committed infractions. A majority have their origins in the peripheries of the capital city of São
Paulo. Almost all come from poor or lower middle class families, but are not street children. Extremely rarely are youths from
the middle or upper classes found in the institutions. Only 5 percent of those interned are female. Involvement with drugs
and crimes against property, principally robbery, are the most frequent crimes. Homicides, kidnapping and rape make up
less than 10 percent of the cases.
The maximum period of internment should be three years, but there are cases in which the Department of Justice
requests a longer period. Officially there is a recidivism rate of 7 percent. But for Ariel de Castro, the statistic is not reliable.
Experiences like those of the São Bernardo do Campo Child Foundation support the skepticism. Created in 1997 as a
substitute for jailing young delinquents, the institution encountered a recidivism rate of 33 percent. Today, after the provision of
various kinds of support that includes assistance to families, the rate fell to 6 percent.
For the president of the Human Rights Commission of the São Paulo Bar, João José Sady, there is also within
FEBEM one of the great national shames the so-called UAI (Initial Treatment Unit) in the Brás neighborhood of São Paulo. This
is a triage center, and it is always grossly overcrowded. Its capacity is for 60 internees, but it has an average occupancy of
400, who spend 45 days shut up there, awaiting a determination of their permanent destination. "There is simply no space for
anything. They stay seated, watching television, without sunshine or any activity. At bedtime, there are three on every mattress.
There is no solution for the UAI. It needs to be deactivated," Sady emphasizes.
In the interior of the state, the situation is no better, according to Ariel de Castro Alves. "In various cities, the young
offenders stay in district jails, separated from adults, but in overcrowded conditions." He cites as an example Santo André, where
there were 30 adolescents in cell of six square meters and that at one point came to "house" 60 youth.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linnis Cook.
This article appeared originally in the Jornal do
Advogado, official organ of the São Paulo Bar Association.