Conditions in many prisons were poor and sometimes life threatening, mainly due to overcrowding. Abuse by prison guards, including sexual abuse, continued at many facilities, and poor working conditions and low pay for prison guards encouraged corruption.
Physical Conditions: Endemic overcrowding was a problem. According to the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship, as of November 2016, the prison population was 711,463 prisoners (including house arrests); the official capacity of the prison system was 393,953 prisoners at the beginning of the year. According to Human Rights Watch, women were often held in women’s wings of men’s prisons, and women’s prisons sometimes employed male guards. Female inmates complained of verbal and sexual harassment by male guards as well as lack of access to medical care, particularly prenatal and postnatal care.
Prisoners convicted of petty crimes frequently were held with murderers and other violent criminals. Authorities attempted to hold pretrial detainees separately from convicted prisoners, but lack of space often required placing convicted criminals in pretrial detention facilities. In many prisons, including those in the Federal District, officials attempted to separate violent offenders from other inmates and keep convicted drug traffickers in a wing apart from the rest of the prison population. Multiple sources reported adolescents were jailed with adults in poor and crowded conditions. In many juvenile detention centers, the number of inmates greatly exceeded capacity.
Violence was rampant in several prison facilities in the Northeast. In addition to overcrowding, poor administration of the prison system, the presence of gangs, and corruption contributed to violence within the penitentiary system. On January 1, in the privately run Anisio Jobim Penitentiary complex in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State, conflict between the Amazonas-based Familia do Norte and Sao Paulo’s Primeiro Comando Capital criminal organizations ended with 56 prisoners killed by decapitation and burning.
Prisons suffered from insufficient staffing and lack of control over the prison population. Some prisons had a ratio of one guard on duty for every 200-300 prisoners, making it impossible to exercise control in the prisons. During a January riot at Alcacuz Prison in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, officials waited until daylight to enter the prison. In the meantime inmates climbed on to the prison’s roof bearing flags alluding to criminal factions and armed with sticks, stones, and knives.
According to data from the Ministry of Health, prisoners were 28 times more likely to contract tuberculosis, compared with the general public. A study of 58 prisons in the Rio de Janeiro penitentiary system conducted by the leading domestic web content company Universo Online found that, from January 2015 to August 2017, 14 times more deaths occurred as the result of treatable illnesses than from killings. During this period 517 prisoners died from treatable illnesses such as tuberculosis, leprosy, and skin infections, compared with 37 prisoner homicides.
During the year the Ministry of Justice’s National Mechanism for Preventing and Combatting Torture published the results of visits made in 2016 to 23 prisons in six states. The report noted the “shocking” growth of the size of the prison population with no resultant increase in the capacity of the prison system, lack of potable water for drinking and bathing, inadequate nutrition, rat and cockroach infestations, damp and dark cells, and beatings of inmates.
Administration: State-level ombudsman offices and the federal Secretariat of Human Rights monitored prison and detention center conditions and investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions. Prisoners and detainees had access to visitors; however, human rights observers reported some visitors complained of screening procedures that at times included invasive and unsanitary physical exams.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations, and Organization of American States as well as local organizations, such as Mechanism for Torture Prevention and Global Justice. In July the president of the Supreme Court visited the Curado prison in Pernambuco State as part of a new nationwide initiative to investigate and improve the use of federal funds allocated for prison reform.
Improvements: In June officials reported a drop in the homicide rate at the Pedrinhas complex in the state of Maranhao from 17 deaths in 2014 to three in the first six months of year, attributing this to the implementation of reforms such as incarcerating rival gang leaders in separate facilities.