A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the extent of inhumane conditions in several Brazilian prisons and argues that reducing pre-trial detention via more frequent custody hearings is a key way to address the problem.
The report is based on field research in four prisons in Brazil’s northeast Pernambuco state. A video accompanying the report shows dozens of prisoners crammed into cells meant to hold just six people.
In one scene, a prisoner shows off a grisly-looking skin condition on his foot — ill detainees are rarely taken outside the prison to seek medical care, as there are not enough guards to escort them. As a result, inmates are afflicted with diseases like tuberculosis and AIDs at much higher rates than that of the general population.
Because there is less than one guard for every 30 inmates in Pernambuco’s prisons, guards rely on other prisoners to help apply discipline and order. These prisoners are called “keyholders,” as they literally hold the keys that allow them to move from one prison block to another. They are also known to sell drugs and use violence to intimidate those who do not pay their “debts,” including rent money for sleeping on the floor.
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The HRW report describes conditions that are common in penitentiaries across Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, including Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico. The report is also correct to argue that tackling pre-trial detention is vital for improving the situation. In Pernambuco state, 59 percent of all detainees are awaiting trial, compared to 36 percent in São Paulo — also known for its horrifically overcrowded prisons — and 41 percent at a national level.
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One way to reduce pre-trial detention would be mandating custody hearings across Brazil, the HRW report asserts. These hearings would allow judges to determine when it is truly necessary to hold a suspect in prison before his trial date. HRW notes that in one state, judges that held custody hearings over a four-and-a-half month period decided that 60 percent of detainees should not be held in pre-trial detention.