Friday, January 08, 2010

Reports on Police Violence and Prison Conditions in Brazil

In yet even more cheerful news from Brazil, Human Rights Watch once again put Brazil on its list for police violence.

According to NGO Human Rights Watch, an alarming number of police killings have gone unpunished in Brazil. Police officers from the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have killed more than 11,000 people since 2003.

Most of these killings are claimed to have been “resistance” killings — those that occur when police officers return fire in self-defense. Police officials say these killings are in resistance to gangs linked to drug trafficking.

However, Human Rights Watch says otherwise. The group led a two-year investigation, called Lethal Force, that focused on 51 such killings and found evidence that police officers often took steps to cover up the true nature of the deaths.
This should come as no surprise to people familiar with Brazil or regular readers here. The solution, according to HRW, is to appoint independent investigators and prosecutors to focus on the extrajudicial killings. That would be nice, and there have been some forays into prosecutorial action and even some newer tactics within police forces, but with the broader lack of concern about the fate of the poor in Brazil and the deep-seated impunity most police have enjoyed, nothing short of a massive and complete overhaul of the police system, structure, and workforce forced upon Rio from the federal government will accomplish an eradication of this, and that simply isn't happening for obvious logistical reasons.

Nor is that the only problem facing Brazil, in terms of policing and human rights. A British journalist had the chance to see some of the prison conditions in Brazil, and he learned firsthand that they were nothing short of appalling. In addition to the horrible crowding and understaffing, there are broader fundamental problems:
Many of the people being held have only been charged with extremely minor offences – such as shoplifting – but administrative inefficiencies in the conduct of trials means that it is not uncommon for them to spend longer on remand than their final sentence. Many should not even be there at all. The Brazilian judiciary have recently reopened the files in a number of states and found that around 20% of the people currently in prison should be released and a further 30% moved to lower security.

Locking up petty thieves with hardened killers also provides the gangs with a steady stream of new recruits. Their leaders are responsible for the day to day administration of many prisons, controlling the distribution of food, medicine, and hygiene kits and enforcing whatever internal discipline exists. Two and half years ago the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), São Paulo's most powerful crime gang, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against police officers and prison staff in a protest over prison conditions, which resulted in around 450 killings. The PCC was initially formed by a group of prisoners to "avenge the death of 111 prisoners" who were killed during the suppression of a prison protest in 1992.

As Foley points out, this also needs major reforming, which is easy to say and hard to do. I think prison reform in Brazil has a better chance to be accomplished fairly quickly in comparison to police reform. Either way, though, in spite of Brazil's recent growth, expansion, and success in the international arena, it is still very difficult to be either poor or a criminal in Brazil, and there is little hope that the basic structural situation facing those groups is going to improve anytime soon.