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Brazil’s Prison Conditions Attacked

June 23, 1999

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) _ In an overcrowded and fetid precinct jail, Nailson Magnum looks nervously around to make sure no one else is listening as he whispers a tale of torture.

``First the police put a gun to my head and then beat me like a wild animal until I agreed to confess to a crime I didn’t commit,″ the 31-year-old prisoner said.

Accused of stealing a watch from a store, Magnum now shares a 10-by-13-foot jail cell with 24 men awaiting trial or serving time. The cell in Sao Paulo’s 4th precinct police station was built to hold one-fourth that number, and more arrive all the time.

It’s an all too common story, says Amnesty International. Torture and subhuman conditions are widespread in jails and prisons that hold close to 200,000 prisoners, the London-based human rights group says in ``No One Here Sleeps Safely,″ an 80-page report released Wednesday.

``Brazil’s penal system is one of the worst in the world,″ Javier Zuniga, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas said in a news conference. He declined to say which was the worst.

``Police routinely resort to torture and ill-treatment as a means of extracting confessions,″ said the report, based on visits to 35 penal institutions in 10 Brazilian states in 1998. ``Beatings and intimidation are also employed in prisons and police stations as a means of controlling an ever-growing number of detainees.″

The ``appalling″ conditions in many prisons and jails ``amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment,″ where inmates run the risk of contracting fatal diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, the report said. Local Amnesty International researchers said no reliable figures exist for the number of prison deaths.

Rebellions are commonplace, ``suggesting that authorities are not in full control of the country’s penal institutions,″ the report said.

``While I have not read the report, it is probably a correct reflection of reality,″ said Jose Gregori, head of Brazil’s Federal Human Rights Department and the official government spokesman on human rights issues. ``There’s a lot to be done in this area.″

There was no immediate comment from prison officials. Joao Benedicto de Azevedo Marques, head of prison administration for Sao Paulo state, was traveling and his office declined to comment. There was no answer at Sao Paulo’s federal prison office.

Nationwide, there are at least 170,000 inmates in prisons and penitentiaries designed to hold 74,000. Many more are held in jails or detention centers. The 4th precinct jail, for example, was built to hold 36 prisoners but currently holds 148, mostly for theft and drug possession.

``We have to take turns sleeping because there is no room for all of us to stretch out,″ Magnum said. ``The lucky ones have hammocks, which they string up between the window and door.″

Magnum was beaten just after he was taken into custody two months ago but said he has not suffered abuse since being incarcerated at the 4th precinct jail, the only lockup that a judge would allow The Associated Press to visit. The 4th precinct is regarded as one of the few where inmates are not mistreated.

``Mistreating prisoners gets you nowhere. It only exacerbates an already tense situation and could lead to an explosive situation,″ said precinct officer Valdecir Aparecido Nascimento.

But, he added, ``We are one of the few exceptions.″

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