LIMA, Peru – Late last year, a 15-year-old girl was locked up for 24 days with adult men in a police holding cell in Abaetetuba, Brazil, where she was raped repeatedly and burned with cigarettes and lighters.
Although the case outraged Brazilians when an anonymous phone call brought it to light, the girl, her family and some of the people who came to her defense received threats, and she and some relatives went into hiding.
While that case was particularly scandalous, church workers and others familiar with Latin America’s prison system say it is the tip of an iceberg of problems with juvenile justice – and the entire prison system – in the region.
“Unfortunately, since the 1980s there has been exponential growth in the prison population,” both adult and juvenile, said Elias Carranza, director of the U.N. Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders.
The number of people in prison in Brazil rose from 240,000 in 2002 to 371,000 in 2005. In Ecuador, the figure increased from 7,800 in 2001 to 12,000 in 2005.
The result is serious overcrowding in prisons with inadequate infrastructure, personnel and services. Bolivia’s prison population is twice the system’s capacity. In Uruguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Peru and Ecuador, the nationwide prison population exceeds capacity by at least 45 percent.
Figures for individual prisons are even more alarming. Lima’s San Pedro Prison, built to hold about 1,800 inmates, now houses nearly 8,000. Many have not yet been sentenced.
While the U.N. institute does not have complete statistics for minors in prison, the number of minors also has been rising, Carranza told Catholic News Service.
“There is a direct correlation between inequitable distribution of income and the increase in the rate of crimes against life and property,” he said, adding that as the income gap increases within and between countries, “it creates a situation of social violence.”
But Carranza and other experts say the answer is not to put more people – especially young people – in prison, except in cases of very serious crimes.
For most youths, “the last option should be locking them up, because what they learn (in prison) is far worse than what they did before they got there,” said Heidi Cerneka, the Brazilian Catholic Church’s national coordinator for the issue of women in prison.
Cerneka, a Maryknoll lay missioner and native of St. Louis, is also one of only two nongovernment members of an official Brazilian task force on women in prisons.
When she went to Abaetetuba to investigate the case of the teenager, who had been arrested for allegedly stealing a mobile phone, she found that “people were genuinely horrified,” but that officials were reluctant to hold anyone responsible.
“Technically, adolescents should not be in jail,” Cerneka said, but if they must be held overnight at a police station before being transferred to a juvenile detention center, the law requires that they be separated from adults.
“But even if she was 40, you still don’t put a woman in a jail with men for 24 days,” she said.
Nevertheless, Cerneka and other prison ministry officials have found other cases of women being held with men in police cells, as well as of adolescents, including boys of 16 or 17, in cells with adult women.
Police and prison officials sometimes refuse to believe that a girl is a minor. Cerneka said it took five months to prove the age of a 15-year-old girl who was being held in a prison for adult women. Because her birth certificate did not include a photo or other distinguishing characteristics, officials said there was no way to prove it was hers.
The drug trade has helped swell the number of minors in Latin America’s prisons. Dealers and traffickers use children as couriers because there is a popular belief that they will escape punishment if caught, Cerneka said. But in Brazil, kids can get up to three years in a juvenile detention center for running drugs.
The answer to that offense and other common crimes committed by young people is “getting the kids into school,” Carranza said. “If you look country by country, it’s serious the number of adolescents who are not in school and who have other risk factors.”
Imprisoning people only in cases of “crimes that merit incarceration” would relieve overcrowding, which is “cruel and inhumane punishment,” he said.
Both young offenders and adults are often held in prison or detention centers while their cases are investigated, a process that can take years. Cerneka said she knows inmates who have not been sentenced but have been in prison for longer than the maximum sentence if they are eventually convicted.
The key, Carranza said, is to establish alternatives to prison, such as community service, especially for youths. For cases that do merit detention, he said, “sanctions should be eminently educational,” so that young people can finish school and learn skills.
At the same time, he said, countries need social policies to close the income gap.
Cerneka’s experience also shows that attacking social problems would help ease prison problems. A survey in Brazil found that 95 percent of women over age 60 “at some point in their lives were victims of violence,” she said. “Jail does nothing for them. It only makes things worse.”
She said she hopes the people who allowed the teenage girl to be held in the cell in Abaetetuba for more than three weeks will be held responsible. She worries about threats against the girl’s family and against the anonymous caller – reportedly an inmate who was released from the cell – who tipped off a children’s defense organization.
“If nothing happens,” Cerneka said, “it will just say to people that you’re better off not opening your mouth.”