By Maria Lopez Conde, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff defended her government’s public safety policies across the nation in an interview with two radio stations on Monday amid growing national and international outrage over violence at Brazil’s overcrowded prisons.
Rousseff has come under fire from her opposition, particularly Brazilian Social Democracy Party’s presidential hopeful, Aécio Neves, who criticized Rousseff’s “hands-off approach” to public safety last week at a luncheon in São Paulo city. Neves said that Rousseff’s government places the entire responsibility on the states, acting as if the federal government “lived in another country.”
“We, at least my government and President Lula’s government, we never said that violence is the states’ problems and for that reason, we were washing our hands clean [of the problem],” Rousseff said on Monday, January 20th in an interview with Rádio América and Itatiaia from Minas Gerais.
“Other governments alleged that, not ours. Because we respect the Constitution, in relation to the federal relationship outlined in the Constitution, we truly believe in a cooperative action, an action that constitutes and creates a partnership between the federal government, states and municipalities,” Rousseff affirmed.
The statement come just two weeks after newspaper Folha de São Paulo published a video of two decapitated bodies and severed heads inside the Pedrinhas penitentiary facility in Maranhão state, sparking an international outrage over the alarming living conditions in Brazil’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. This prompted the British weekly magazine, The Economist, to label Brazil’s ineffective prison system as a “hellish” one that belongs in the Middle Ages.
A report from global nonprofit Human Rights Watch released yesterday described Brazil’s penitentiary facilities as “plagued by violence” in a country where the incarceration rate has increased by almost thirty percent over the last five years, according to the Ministry of Justice. Human Rights Watch’s 2014 report concluded that “overcrowding and poor sanitation facilitate the spread of disease” in Brazil’s prisons, while torture perpetrated by police officers remains a “chronic problem.”
In her interview, Rousseff listed the policies implemented to complement safety efforts alongside cities hosting games during the Confederations Cup in June 2013. She also added that the federal government fully supports the Police Pacification Units (UPPs).
“There are attributes, in fact, that are exclusive to states, but the federal government can act in partnership in those actions, upon the request of states, that is, we cannot impose ourselves,” she said. “If the states demand it, we will act in tandem with them,” Rousseff added.
She also stressed that the federal government offers states the possibility to transfer their inmates to federal facilities. In fact, Maranhão state Governor Roseana Sarney agreed to send a number of leaders from criminal groups jailed in Pedrinhas to prison facilities maintained by the federal government in other states following a crime wave led by inmates at that jail.
Nevertheless, conditions at Pedrinhas, as well as other prisons around the country that are underfunded and understaffed, remain precarious. Six members from the Human Rights Commission in the Brazilian Senate visited Pedrinhas on Monday, January 13th. The Senators described chaotic scenes as they heard a number of complaints from prisoners. Senator João Capiberibe said Pedrinhas was not a place suited for human life.
“What we found there was a deposit of human beings. It’s not a prison facility. It’s a degrading and sub-human place, without any hygiene,” Capiberibe said. “It’s a place without rules. There are few penitentiary agents in the pavillions,” he stated.
Another inmate from Pedrinhas was found dead on the morning of January 21st in the same area of the prison in which military police prevented a prison riot last week. Over sixty inmates are estimated to have died at the facility in 2012.