Overpopulated cells, little access to the Justice system, the indiscriminate use of provisional premises, precarious infrastructure, and other problems faced by penitentiaries in Brazil was debated by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The meeting brought together representatives from 47 countries in Geneva.
The UN Working Group on arbitrary detention presented a report which was drafted by experts after their visit to seven detention facilities in the country, in the cities of Brasília, Campo Grande, Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in May 2013.
The text condemns the deprivation of liberty, regarded as excessive, and maintains that it is “being used as a first resort rather than the last, as stipulated by international human rights standards.” According to the UN, this a “worrying trend”.
The report further highlights the number of arbitrary arrests, the lack of separation between convicts and temporary detainees, and abuse from prison wardens and police officers. As for this kind of violence, the study denounces the prejudice suffered by minorities in jail, especially young black inmates.
The document puts forward a series of recommendations aimed at enforcing the exercise of human rights in the lives of people deprived of liberty. Among the suggestions are a greater access to the Justice system, with expanded services provided by public prosecutors, and alternative penalties on people charged with crimes of less offensive potential, as determined by law.
The council also advises the country to attempt to reform its police bodies at both national and state levels, making wider use of strategies like the community police.
After the presentation of the report at the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, the delegation sent by the Brazilian government to Geneva was given a chance to voice their opinion on the matter. NGO Conectas Human Rights, which holds consultative status with the UN, had a say on the study.
Conectas lawyer Vivian Calderoni points out that the debate should bring to light solutions to the challenges faced by the Brazilian prison system, especially as regards the adoption of deprivation of liberty. “The UN very strongly condemns this option and recommends that the country adopt measures like the alternative penalties,” she adds.
Figures released in 2013 by the Ministry of Justice show that Brazil’s prison population is made up by 574,027 people. In the view of Vivan Calderoni, these numbers make clear how limited Brazil’s penitentiary network is, and reveal that “the logic of mass imprisonment must be disrupted.”
Brazil’s Ambassador to the UN, Regina Maria Cordeiro Dunlop, expressed criticism over the UN report. Dunlop reiterated the country’s interest in the dialogue with the working group that visited Brazil, and said that “the report identifies challenges which Brazil already acknowledges and has sought to overcome.”
Nonetheless, she went on to describe as unfounded and inaccurate the remarks about the judiciary branch, the treatment given to immigrants and minors in conflict with the law, the way the public attorney’s offices operate, and the duties assigned to such bodies as the Public Prosecution Office, the Federal Police, and the National Penitentiary Department.
She further condemned the comments about issues that were not analyzed during the UN’s visit in March last year, like the deprivation of liberty of physically or mentally disabled people. Dunlop also argued that “it is incorrect to affirm that the number of indigenous individuals in jail increased by 33 percent.”
She quotes the Ministry of Justice as saying that “from 2010 to 2012, the rate escalated 13 percent,” accounting for merely 0.16 percent of the total number of people in jail. The remarks about how people of other groups are treated, like young African-Brazilians, was not mentioned by the diplomat.
Drafted by a UN working group after its visit to seven detention facilities in five Brazilian cities, the report cautions about the alarming amount of imprisoned people, which makes Brazil the fourth country in prison population.
The study also highlights the concern over temporary detainees and their poor access to the services provided by the courts. The organization therefore recommended alternatives to the deprivation of liberty, which “has been used as a first resort rather than the last, as is required by international human rights standards.”
Apart from Brazil’s official statements, a contribution from the São Paulo-based NGO Conectas Human Rights, which holds consultative status with the UN, was also expected. Their participation was postponed. In a note, Conectas opposed the position adopted by the Brazilian government, which “avoided the harsh criticism of experts over policies of mass imprisonment, and evaded referring to the need for urgent measures that can provide a solution to the violations observed.”
Conectas also partly responded to the disapproval showed by the Brazilian embassy, as regards the Anti-Drugs Law, the arrest of individuals for possession of narcotics, and mandatory rehabilitation, which Dunlop said is not common practice in the country. In the view of Conectas, Brazil “wasted the five minutes it had been given by addressing marginal matters, hushing up the specialists’ main conclusions.”