Prisons in Brazil: Violating Prisoners’ Human Rights Has Already Become Routine

By Priscilla Moura, J.D. expected December 2018, Fundação Getúlio Vargas – FGV Direito Rio; Exchange Student, Spring 2017, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

In January 2017, Brazilians were surprised by some of the most violent events in three Brazilian federal prisons. In these correctional facilities the prisoners began to massacre themselves, again bringing to light a major crisis in the country’s penitentiary system. The rebellion ended with the death of sixty prisoners in the Manaus correctional facility,  thirty-three in Roraima and twenty-six in Rio Grande do Norte.

We can trace the cause of this unrest directly to repeated violations of the fundamental rights of the prisoners, rights guaranteed both by the Brazilian Constitution and by international law.  Brazil currently has the third largest prison population in the world. It would be ideal if its system could keep its prisoners in minimally humane conditions, according to what it established in its constitution, as well as what it has committed to  in treaties and agreements with international institutions. However, reality has shown that this is not what happens in Brazilian prisons.

On the contrary, those who are there must put up with overcrowded prisons, inhumane treatment, and harsh living conditions.  Brazil’s practices in its prisons violate the UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, especially principles 1 and 5. These two principles reinforce the right to individual dignity and other fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Furthermore, article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights guarantees prisoners the right to humane treatment. Relatedly, article 4(1) prohibits the state from “arbitrarily depriv[ing anyone] of his life.” In 1992, prisoners rioted at the Brazilian Carandirú prison. One hundred eleven prisoners were killed; another 35 were wounded. No prison guards, police or military members were injured.  The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights concluded that the evidence “show[s] clearly that in the Carandirú riot the inmates were not killed or wounded by the agents of the state in self-defense. They were murdered or wounded in deliberate and systematic infringements of their rights to life and integrity in violation of Articles 4(1) and 5 of the Convention.”  In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee in Bouton v. Uruguay decided that the treatment given to a prisoner under some conditions, as in cases of overcrowding, may be considered as violating the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Finally, it is important to mention Brazil’s deplorable prison conditions have been condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because the country failed to provide minimum guarantees to its prisoners, mainly related to violation of rights to life and bodily integrity. See, e.g., Matter of the Penitentiary Complex of Pedrinhas regarding Brazil, Provisional Measures, Order of the Court, Dec. 16, 2014; Matter of the Penitentiary Complex of Curado, Provisional Measures, Order The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, May 22, 2014.

In conclusion, the Brazilian prison system has been in crisis for a long time. This decades-old state practice has institutionalized and exacerbated the violations of the human rights of prisoners. For this reason, the country needs to make sweeping changes to its prison system to ensure that prisoners’ human rights are guaranteed.

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