On August 4, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights officially called on Brazil to take all steps necessary to protect the life, personal integrity, and health of prisoners in Aníbal Bruno prison and reduce over-crowding at the pre-trial center, one of largest prison complexes in Latin America and among Brazil’s most violent. This is the first time Aníbal Bruno prison has come under international sanction. The measures were sought this past June by a coalition of human rights groups including the Catholic Prison Ministry (Pastoral Carcerária), the Ecumenical Service of Advocacy in Prisons (Serviço Ecumênico de Militância nas Prisões), Global Justice (Justiça Global), and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.
Starting in 2010, the Clinic and its partner organizations began gathering evidence of 55 violent deaths occurring in the prison since 2008, the vast majority of them homicides. Joint fact-finding visits documented systematic torture and severe medical neglect as well. The coalition reported these abuses to state authorities—as had occurred many times before—but little was done to address the prison’s problems. The request for precautionary measures to the Inter-American Commission was filed this past June, as the death toll continued to rise.
The coalition’s filing sought measures to reduce rampant violence within the facility, provide health services to gravely ill prisoners, and promote long-term reforms that would stem excessive pre-trial incarceration, improve conditions of detention, and tackle corruption. Brazil has until August 24 to inform the Commission of its efforts to comply with the decision.
Located in one of Brazil’s tourism capitals, Recife, Pernambuco state, the Aníbal Bruno prison gained national notoriety in 2008 when the facility was designated by a congressional inquiry as one of the top ten worst detention centers in the country. Inhuman detention conditions persist today. Aníbal Bruno prison is currently at 334 percent capacity, with over 4,800 prisoners crammed into space designed to hold 1,448. In its decision, the Commission sought from Brazil “a substantive reduction in the overpopulation of persons deprived of liberty [in Aníbal Bruno],” among other steps.
During their inspections, coalition members found evidence of systematic torture, including signs that some prisoners had been partially skinned and had their bones broken in assaults orchestrated by “keymasters” (chaveiros)—prisoners who are officially deputized with guard duties. The “keymaster” prisoners derive their nicknames from the fact that they literally control the keys to cells and, in practice, decide which prisoners get to access medical and other services outside the cellblock walls. The coalition documented prisoners suffering severe medical neglect in Aníbal Bruno, including untreated open wounds, infections, and chronic pain. The Inter-American Commission specifically urged Brazil to end the “keymaster” system, provide, “adequate medical attention to the [prisoners],” and adopt, “all the measures necessary to avoid the transmission of contagious diseases.”
Members of the Catholic Prison Ministry and the Ecumenical Service of Advocacy in Prisons have been monitoring human rights conditions in Aníbal Bruno prison for decades. Justiça Global and the Clinic began fact-finding, international litigation, and media advocacy surrounding Aníbal Bruno last fall, joining the work of advocates in the region.
For the initial complaint on Aníbal Bruno (in Portuguese with certain names redacted), click here [warning: this document contains a graphic image].
For the Commission’s decision (in Portuguese), click here.