EXCLUSIVE-Brazil found unlawfully extending unpaid prison labor program

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 April 2020 05:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Prisoners work in the Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security penitentiary in Juiz de Fora, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Rio de Janeiro, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Image Caption and Rights Information

Critics of the scheme say it is akin to slave labor and unlawful without judicial approval

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, April 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state has unlawfully extended an unpaid labor scheme for prisoners denounced by human rights experts as a form of modern slavery, official documents obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation reveal.

Brazil's penal system has long relied on cheap prison labor in its overcrowded, under-funded jails, with inmates cooking, cleaning and maintaining quarters in return for about 748 reals ($145) each month, and slightly reduced sentences.

However the cash-strapped government of Rio de Janeiro created a category of 'volunteer labor' in July 2018 whereby prisoners had sentences cut for working but were not paid.

The program - framed as an emergency cost-cutting measure to keep Rio's prisons running - was meant to end in January 2019 but was extended by a state judge until August last year.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation established the scheme was still running, although documents provided by sources with knowledge of the matter show a request to prolong the program until 2021 had not been authorised by judge Rafael Estrela.

The sources confirmed that Estrela - who first sanctioned the scheme - had not approved any extension sought by Rio's Secretariat of Prison Administration (SEAP) beyond August 2019.

The State Mechanism for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture - an independent body that documents rights violations in detention centers - said the scheme is akin to slave labor and has no "appearance of legality" without judicial approval.

"It's one more illegality ... in something that is already illegal," said Maira Fernandes, a lawyer and former president of Rio's penitentiary council, a state advisory body.

SEAP did not reply to questions about the scheme's legality. It said about 1,190 inmates had signed up voluntarily, with their sentences cut by one day for every three days of work.

Inmates have said they are not forced to work but they feel they have little choice as they want less jail time and the state's prisons would fall into disrepair as they are already housing nearly 53,000 prisoners - about 20,000 above capacity.

Estrela did not respond to requests for comment but said he sanctioned the scheme last year because prison authorities had insisted they had no money for inmates' wages and, that without his authorization, the entire jail system risked collapse.


Rio de Janeiro in 2016 declared a period of "financial calamity" that was set to run until 2021 but which the state governor said last year had to be prolonged until 2023.

SEAP requested the voluntary prison labor scheme be extended until the crisis ended, with no money to pay inmates, according to one document reviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The state owes almost R$14 million ($2.74 million) to inmates for work done from 2016 to 2018 - before the voluntary scheme was created - showed one of the documents filed by SEAP.

By federal and state laws, working prisoners must be paid 75% of a minimum wage alongside having their sentences reduced.

Denying such payments contravenes United Nations guidelines on how to treat prisoners, and human rights experts and lawyers have said Rio has effectively been forcing inmates into slavery.

Labor prosecutor Guadalupe Couto said there were two ongoing investigations relating to prisons in Rio: one focused on working conditions and the other on lack of payment.

Couto is part of a group of prosecutors set up by the Labor Prosecutor's Office last year to discuss prison labor due to concerns about recent efforts to weaken the rights of inmates.

In Rio, a state bill tabled last year sought to make the voluntary labor scheme permanent, while a proposed 2015 federal law that would see inmates pay for their stay in prison has gained momentum this year and is set to be put to a vote soon.

"We are studying these bills ... so that the labor an inmate does is recognized and he receives at least the minimum wage," said Couto, who specialises in slave labor cases.

Related stories:

'Hundreds' of inmates escape Brazil jails ahead of coronavirus lockdown

Lock 'em up or let 'em out? Coronavirus prompts wave of prisoner releases

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.