RIO DE JANEIRO: Cash-strapped Rio de Janeiro is using prisoners as “volunteer workers” to maintain jails in a move that human rights experts said was illegal and treated inmates like slaves.
Brazil’s penal system has long relied on cheap prison labour in its overcrowded, under-funded jails, with inmates cooking, cleaning and maintaining quarters in return for a small allowance and slightly reduced sentences.
Prisoners are also paid to make goods such as bricks or ice for private companies that pay the state for their labour.
But last July, a resolution enacted by Rio’s state government launched a new category of “volunteer labour” – affecting hundreds of inmates – despite federal and state laws requiring inmates to be paid for all work done in jail.
Rio de Janeiro’s Secretariat of Prison Administration did not respond to repeated requests for comment made over a month.
As well as breaking Brazilian laws, denying inmates payment for work contravenes United Nations guidelines on how to treat prisoners, according to a senior UN official.
“Prison labour should … observe standards of decent labour including a system of equitable remuneration,” said Birgit Gerstenberg, who is the regional representative for South America for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
“This does not rule out real voluntary work … which does not seem to be the described case (in Brazil),” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement, saying UN standards were achievable and calling for their “urgent” implementation.
The resolution was authorised by state judge Rafael Estrela, who told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that prison authorities had insisted they had no money for wages and, without his authorisation, the entire jail system risked collapse.
Brazil’s jail population has surged eight-fold in three decades to about 750,000 inmates, the world’s third highest tally, with authorities saying another 350,000 spaces are needed in the nation’s 1,500 jails.
The emergency labour measure was supposed to end in January but on February 25, the judge extended it for another 180 days.
Estrela denied the change amounted to endorsing slavery as the inmates were volunteers but said he was “uncomfortable” with his decision, feeling he had no choice.
“Everything would stop … trash would go uncollected, food would not be delivered, various repairs in the electrical and hydraulic grid would stop being made,” he said in an interview.
“It would be complete chaos.”
Rio has about 53,069 prisoners, some 21,456 more than its jails can accommodate, publicly available data shows, in about 56 detention centres. About 3,228 inmates are women.
About 1,300 prisoners work. Two-thirds are on paid, private contracts and the rest – about 420 inmates – take care of the jails and now do it for free, said a report by Instituto Igarape, a non-profit that focuses on public safety issues.
The UN global guidelines on how to treat prisoners – known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules” – call on member states to run “a system of equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners”.
Federal law in Brazil is in line with this, saying all “work done by prisoners will be remunerated”.
The State Mechanism for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture, an independent body created to document human rights violations in detention centres, said the change in Rio’s procedure effectively forces inmates into modern slavery.
“It is our understanding that the state put inmates in a situation analogous to slavery,” said Natalia Damazio, a member of the Mechanism, which has no power to alter public policy but whose members can visit prisons when they choose.
In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labour but also covers debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a health risk and any work that violates human dignity.
After the change, Damazio said inmates whom she met on her visits saw themselves as slaves and a leap back to 1888 when Brazil was the last country in the western world to end slavery.
Experts in prison administration who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation also considered the measure to be illegal.
“(Work) cannot be unbound from pay, or it becomes slave labour,” said Maira Fernandes, a lawyer and former president of Rio’s penitentiary council, a state advisory body.
By federal and states laws, inmates with jobs must be paid 75 per cent of a minimum wage – about 748 reals ($198) a month – and sentences reduced by one day for every three days of work.
The change came amid far wider economic turmoil in Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro has been in an economic crisis since 2016 when the state ran out of money to pay public servants, sparking riots. By early 2018, there were no funds for prisoners either.
Jobs were in high demand and there was not enough to go round, prison staff said. But the work still needed doing so the workforce maintaining jails was shifted to volunteer status.
“They kept doing their work, even without pay,” said Joao Carlos, an ex-convict who declined to give his surname. He was released last month after an 18-month stint for theft at Penal Institute Placido de Sa Carvalho – part of Gericino Penitentiary Complex – a massive network of prisons in Rio.
Estrela said he feared rejecting the change could have fuelled violence in jails where deadly riots are common.
“The people who criticise this decision, what solution do they have? There are none,” he said. “When you have a problem like this, you look for other solutions … Then tomorrow a prison riot breaks out, with deaths … and it’s on me.”
Estrela said the Public Defender’s Office – charged with protecting prisoner rights – and the Public Prosecutor’s Office were both consulted on the move and did not oppose his decision.
In a joint statement, the offices told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the decision rested with the judge and that requests they had made – such as asking that Rio’s attorney general to examine the measure’s “legal effects” – were ignored.
Estrela said he hoped Rio’s government would resume payments in six months but had no answer when asked what might happen if the state requested a further extension.
“I’m trying to live (one) problem at a time”, he said.
Julita Lemgruber, a former director at Rio’s department of penitentiaries, said the move to unpaid labour could have benefits as there were always more inmates who wanted to work than pay available to shorten sentences and break the torpor.
“(However) I’m not applauding the strategy,” Lemgruber said. “It’s wrong. It’s illegal and should be questioned.”
Prison staff also believe the resolution formalises arrangements that have existed for years and some consider that any form of labour is good for both inmates and the institution.
“When we give an inmate any sort of activity, we are giving him a little mental health,” said a high-ranking prison administrator, declining to be named because she was not authorised to speak to media.
Ex-convicts gather every day at Patronato Magarinos Torres, a government institution where parolees access social services, and work is often the subject of conversation there.
“When our families visit us (in jail), we don’t want them around trash and rats so we clean it up,” said one ex-convict.
As for cleaning up after the officers who guard them?
“They take advantage of us. A prisoner is always exploited,” he added, to nods of resignation from a crowd of fellow ex-cons.