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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 20:16 GMT
Rape case adds to Brazil jail notoriety
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo. File pic
Brazilian jails have a long history of violence and overcrowding

It sometimes seems that there is little left to say about prisons and the system of detention in Brazil that still has the capacity to shock.

Even so, the report that a young woman, possibly as young as 15, was left to share a cell in a police station with around 20 men and is said to have been repeatedly sexually abused, does stand out for its sheer horror.

The fact that police officers involved then started to dispute her age, as if it mattered whether she was 15 or 20, does say something about the inability to grasp the scale of what had been done.

The girl does not appear to have been helped by the involvement in the case of women officials at various levels.

According to Brazilian media reports the officer in charge of the station where the case was processed was a woman, who has since been suspended, while a woman judge who dealt with the case did not authorise a transfer.

The governor of the state of Para, where the incident happened, is also a woman.

21 Oct: Police arrest girl for allegedly stealing and send her to a cell in a police station in Abaetetuba
5 Nov: Police chief asks for transfer to women's prison in city of Belem
14 Nov: Official responsible for child welfare discovers girl. She is taken to a room from where she escapes
16 Nov: Girl is found and sent to centre for young offenders in Belem
Source: Folha de Sao Paulo

"I am shocked and angry," Governor Ana Julia Carepa told the Brazilian media.

"My political life was always dedicated to the defence of human rights and it would not be different in my administration."

As an effort continues to shift blame for what happened, the civil police of Para say that the judicial officials knew that the girl was being held with a large number of male prisoners.

They have produced a document which suggests a request was made to transfer the girl to a centre for young offenders on 7 November, at least a week before she was discovered by an official responsible for child welfare.

The discovery was only made after an anonymous tip-off.

The document - presented to the judge - requested the urgent transfer of the young woman to a detention centre for women, and said that she ran the risk of "any type of violence".

The police request for a transfer was only made after the girl had been in custody for 15 days, and in total she was held for 26 days, according to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

Welfare officials say the girl reported that she had suffered sexual abuse from about 20 prisoners and had to offer sex in return for food. She also showed marks of cigarette burns on her body.

Cell deficit

Brazilian prisons have long had a reputation for violence, appalling conditions and overcrowding.

Criminals using mobile phones in their cells are even able to directly organise crimes outside.

In August, 25 prisoners died after fellow inmates set fire to mattresses in a cell in a jail in the state of Minas Gerais.


The most notorious case in recent Brazilian history happened in 1992 following a riot in Carandiru jail in Sao Paulo when 111 prisoners were killed, the vast majority shot by military police.

In 2002 alone, 303 inmates were murdered by other prisoners.

A preliminary report from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, released on Friday, makes a grim analysis of the state of Brazilian prisons.

It speaks of endemic overcrowding, filthy conditions and pervasive violence, as well as torture "meted out on a widespread and systematic basis".

Part of the problem is that Brazil does not have a federal prison system and all prisons are run by the 27 different systems, although they are governed by a single penal law.

Between 1995 and 2003, the number of prisoners in the system more than doubled, from 148,760 to 308,304 men and women.

More than 100,000 new prison spaces were created but the country still has a huge deficit.

In recent years as many as 25% of prisoners have been held in police cells due to shortage of space, even though this is illegal. In some states the figure is even higher.

While the number of women in Brazilian jails is in line with other countries, it is clear that the level of overcrowding and violence means they can be extremely vulnerable.

Tim Cahill, Amnesty International's researcher on Brazil, said the organisation received extensive reports of women in detention who suffered sexual abuse, torture, substandard healthcare and inhuman conditions, showing that this case is far from isolated.

"Even though women in Brazil make up a small percentage of the overall prison population, their numbers in detention are rising," he said.

"There is a desperate need for the government to address their needs, which are rarely, if ever, met."

The security secretary for the state of Para, Vera Talvares, told Folha de Sao Paulo that any type of violation of a woman's rights was a violation of human rights and should receive exemplary punishment.

If that resolve leads to a change in policy in Para, and in other parts of Brazil, it would at least be something, but past events do not leave much room for optimism.

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