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RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 28 2007 (IPS) - The case of a 15-year-old girl who was held for a month in a jail cell with 20 men in the northern Brazilian state of Pará is just an extreme example of the problems plaguing a prison system in crisis.
The extreme case was not an isolated incident, according to human rights groups and even local authorities, who admitted that abuses are frequent in the country’s prisons.
Pará Governor Ana Julia Carepa of the governing Workers’ Party (PT) was the first to admit the precarious conditions in the corrections system in her state, after the case of the teenage girl, who was raped relentlessly for a month and was only given food in exchange for sex, made it into headlines around the world last week.
The girl was apparently thrown into a police station cell on the outskirts of the city of Belem on suspicion of robbery, although she was never formally charged.
Governor Carepa, who has personally taken up the case and promised a full inquiry, told the press in Pará that only six of the state’s 132 municipal jails have separate facilities for female prisoners.
According to Brazil’s Justice Ministry, women account for five percent of the prison population in Brazil. Forty percent of female inmates are in prison for drug trafficking and 21 percent for theft.
Amnesty’s researcher on Brazil, Tim Cahill, said women inmates “suffer twofold, because they suffer the human rights violations experienced by male prisoners (torture, appalling conditions, corruption, and violence among prisoners) as well as violations due to the lack of specific protection for women: sexual abuse by guards and prisoners, being held in jails with men, lack of access to maternal health care, etc.”
Penitentiary authorities say the fundamental problem in Brazil’s prison system is overcrowding, which prompts violence and riots.
There are more than 420,000 prisoners in Brazil, in 1,050 institutions built to hold a total of 262,000 inmates.
Cahill said: “We receive extensive reports of women in detention who suffer sexual abuse, torture, substandard healthcare and inhuman conditions, showing that this case is far from isolated but continues to be hidden from the public.”
The activist recalled a May 2006 visit to a women’s prison in the northeastern city of Recife that had an especial impact on him.
In the Colonia Femenina prison “we saw shocking conditions, like an 11-day-old baby” in a prison with its mother, and young children who were sick and whose imprisoned mothers had no access to medicine or diapers. He also said they received complaints of women who were kept handcuffed while giving birth.
The scandal over the 15-year-old girl broke out just when a reduction in the age of criminal responsibility is being discussed in Brazil.
“At a time when some authorities and the media are consistently calling for a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility, this case shows how far Brazil is from ensuring the necessary minimum protections for its youth,” said Cahill.
He added that while the current case, in which an underage girl was held for a month in a cell with 20 adult men and systematically raped and tortured, may be particularly shocking, it is not very different from the situation of many other youngsters held in detention.
The biggest difference, he said, is that this case was picked up by the national and international media.
He pointed to the case of minors held in FEBEM and DEGSE, juvenile detention centres in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively, who suffer a wide range of mistreatment and abuses.
Reducing the age of criminal responsibility will not reduce crime, he argued, adding that Brazil’s entire corrections system brutalises inmates and is creating more and more violent people.
The notorious conditions in Brazil’s prisons were also denounced by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston, during his 11-day visit to Brazil this month.
In his preliminary report, Alston said that in the northeastern state of Pernambuco alone, there were 61 killings in prisons in the first ten months of the year.
And in that state, he added, “a reliable estimate is that 70 percent of all homicides are committed by death squads, and many of those death squads are made up of policemen and former policemen.”
The U.N. Committee Against Torture also reported that torture is “widespread and systematic” in Brazil’s prisons, which are characterised by “endemic overcrowding, squalid conditions, stifling heat, lack of light and permanent confinement … as well as a generalised level of violence and a lack of adequate supervision which leads to impunity” for abusers.
The same conditions were reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by Brazil’s National Bishops’ Conference’s prison pastoral office, which documented abuses of women prisoners in five states: Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, Bahía and Mato Grosso do Sul.
The leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is aware of the problem, and has been making efforts to remedy the situation.
Justice Minister Tarso Genro, who described the case of the 15-year-old girl as “barbaric,” said it was not an isolated incident but was the result of a “chronic” lack of public investment in the prison system.
The minister said he was “outraged” by the case of the young girl, which he blamed on a penitentiary system “in crisis” that the government is attempting to fix with the recently launched National Programme of Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI).
After a meeting with Genro, Governor Carepa said the Justice Ministry will earmark 12 million dollars through PRONASCI to build and repair prisons in the state of Pará, starting with two women’s facilities.
But the problem, said Amnesty, is that the state and federal governments have been very slow to react to the deep-rooted problems in the prison system.
Although the rights group acknowledged that the government reacted quickly in the current case, it said it was essential that authorities take measures that would apply to all cases, and not just the ones that receive broad press coverage.
For decades, national and international NGOs have been reporting on torture and other abuses in the system, and there have been very few responses, said Cahill.
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