Press Release

IACHR Expresses Concern over the Situation of People Deprived of Their Freedom in Brazil during the COVID-19 Pandemic

August 8, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its concern over the predicament of people deprived of their liberty in Brazil, whose lives, health, and personal integrity are allegedly at particular risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is due to the extremely high levels of overcrowding and the detention conditions prevailing in the country’s prisons.

The situation of people who are deprived of their freedom is one of the IACHR’s main concerns. Brazil has the third-largest prison population in the world. According to official data, as of December 2019, the overcrowding rate in the country stood at 140.74% and the prison population increased 224.5% between 2000 and 2019. The IACHR has frequently discussed how deplorable the detention conditions are in Brazilian prisons, which are typically characterized by alarming levels of overcrowding, substandard infrastructure, negligent medical care, a complete lack of sanitary conditions and basic necessities, and inadequate food. These conditions are extremely conducive to the proliferation and spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The IACHR has noted that the Brazilian state has adopted various measures to treat and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus within penitentiaries. In this regard, in a press release dated March 31, 2020, the IACHR welcomed National Council of Justice Recommendation 062/2020, which ordered the release of people who are deprived of their freedom in Brazil. This initiative calls on judicial authorities to take measures to reduce the numbers of people who are being deprived of their freedom. The actions to be taken to achieve this include a review of pretrial detention cases and the application of alternative measures. Similarly, according to information received from the state, the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) has allegedly implemented initiatives such as developing protocols for controlling and preventing COVID-19 and is also carrying out technical analyses of the impact of the pandemic on the prison system to ascertain options for creating alternative spaces for housing prisoners. It has also developed manuals providing technical guidance for prison authorities in handling COVID-19, in partnership with the Ministry of Health.

Despite this, the IACHR has noted with concern how high rates of infection and death from the COVID-19 virus are within Brazil’s prisons. In this regard, according to information from Depen, at the end of July there were a total of 11,437 infections, 3021 suspected cases, and 73 deaths. The actual numbers could be even higher, given that as of July 31, only 32,682 people had tested, representing less than 0.4% of the total prison population. Likewise, according to a report from the National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture (MNPCT) published in June 2020, the detention conditions in Brazilian prisons allegedly make it impossible for the state to guarantee the health and integrity of people who are deprived of their freedom. For example, prison units in the state of Pernambuco are allegedly overcrowded and have a low number of active health professionals; similarly, only 39% of the prison units in São Paulo allegedly have the minimum number of health professionals required by law. Similarly, the state of Acre allegedly lacks personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene materials for prison workers and prisoners. The predicament of the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic was also reported by civil society organizations in June 2020. They informed the IACHR that the conditions in Brazilian prisons make it impossible for the state to comply with the recommended social distancing measures or to maintain minimum health conditions.

In view of this, the IACHR once again informed the Brazilian state that it must take measures to reduce overcrowding in penitentiaries, such as considering alternative measures, especially for those who are at particular risk. Similarly, the state must adapt detention conditions to treat and prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, the IACHR urged the state to follow the guidelines issued on this matter by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Adopting these measures is extremely urgent given that the consequences of the pandemic pose greater risks to the life, health, and personal integrity of people who are deprived of their freedom.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 195/20