Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More on Jails and Police Impunity in Brazil

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but the NY Times has finally gotten around to putting up an article that actually has some extra info not available the first time the story made its way into the North American media. For those who missed this the first time around, a 15-year-old girl was accused of petty theft, and ended up in a prison with grown men, where for almost 4 weeks, she was tortured and raped, sometimes in exchange for food, sometimes for no reason, by her male cellmates. Police not only ignored her screams for help, they shaved her head to make her look like a boy and now, in one of the worst "defenses" for any event ever, are saying it's not their fault because she has lied about being only 13.

I've written often about the horrible police system that employs murder and torture with impunity in Brazil often, but usually in the context of favelas in Rio (see here, here, and here, for example). However, it should be clear that the problem with police in Brazil is not a Rio-only or favela-only issue. They have employed torture against prisoners (particularly the darker-skinned and poorer) since at least the late-19th century (and that doesn't include slavery, which was only abolished in 1888 but which has undoubtedly had a direct social role on the presence of torture to this date). Prisoners' rights are thrown out the window in a double-standard system in which the wealthy and well-off can serve their time without ever actually going to jail (and that's only IF they are brought to trial, which in itself is extremeley rare) while the poor languish in overcrowded prisons, subject to gang violence, police violence, torture, and inhumane conditions.

And the police continue to act with impunity across the country. In this particular case, the girl and her family have been forced to relocate under a federal witness protection agency due to death threats they have received from the police, who have threatened to kill members of her family if the family doesn't "admit" the girl is 19 or 20. Indeed, when the story first broke, her father said he was told he would be killed if he didn't get the document "proving" her age to be 19 or 20, to which he said (via the media), "How can I give them a document that doesn't exist?" And the worst part in all of this is, while I have no doubt the federal government is sincere in its concern over this case and its broader implications for Brazil's prison system, the atrocities are so deep and so long-standing and institutionalized that I just really don't see any changes coming in a long time, if ever.