By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The government of Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state has expanded an unpaid work scheme for prisoners that human rights experts have denounced as illegal, official documents obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show.
Brazil's penal system has long relied on cheap prison labor to maintain its facilities, with inmates cooking, cleaning and maintaining quarters.
By law, inmates must be paid to work, but last year Rio's government created a new category of "volunteer labor" whereby inmates receive only reduced sentences.
The programme was framed as an emergency measure to keep the prisons working after Rio's cash strapped government ran out of money to pay inmates, and was supposed to end in January. But it was extended for 180 days on February 25, and then expanded.
Documents obtained using Brazil's Access of Information Law show the state's Secretariat for Prison Administration (Seap) created 749 new spots for unpaid workers in April, bringing the total to 1,990 to meet rising demand for labor in prisons.
Seap did not respond to a request for comment on the scheme's expansion.
Denying inmates payment for work contravenes United Nations guidelines on how to treat prisoners and human rights experts have said Rio was effectively forcing inmates into modern slavery.
Working prisoners normally receive 75% of the minimum wage - about 748 reals ($194) a month - and have their sentences reduced by one day for every three days of work.
Labor prosecutor Guadalupe Couto, who specializes in slavery cases, said a working group of three prosecutors would be established to investigate the legality of the program.
Rio public defender Marlon Barcellos said it was a violation of prisoners' collective rights to offer them only unpaid work.
Barcellos, the Public Defender's Office's coordinator for matters relating to the prison system, said he had not been formally notified of the expansion, but would study the matter.
"It is an act violating collective rights," he said.
The State Mechanism for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture, an independent body created to document human rights violations in detention centres, urged Rio's government to resume payment for inmates.
"It's fundamental that the access to reduced sentences be granted to all people imprisoned in Rio," it said in a statement.
"However, it is equally important that there is a plan so that the rights enshrined in the law for the work of prisoners go back to being implemented in the state at its fullest." ($1 = 3.8493 reais) (Reporting by Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.