Brazil: Implementing alternatives to invasive body searches

Friday, April 8, 2022

As part of our Global Campaign on Women and Prison, we are sharing insights and experiences from national preventive mechanisms as they respond to issues of risk for women deprived of liberty. Here, Natalia Damazio and Graziela Sereno, Members of the State Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture of Rio de Janeiro, answer our questions on the use of body searches, which can affect women deprived of liberty and their loved ones.

APT: In 2015, the MEPCT/RJ successfully promoted a change in the legislation regarding invasive searches and frisking (or pat-down) conducted on visitors entering the prison system. Why was the adoption of this legislation so important? And seven years on, is the law observed in practice? 

Graziela: Invasive body searches have always been an issue, in prisons and police stations, when family members visited. It was always an issue in many reports, with complaints about the way searches were conducted. It generally meant that a woman visitor was forced to be naked and in a squatting position. There were also many reports of babies' diapers being removed when mothers brought babies to the visits. It was all very disrespectful.

In the juvenile system, the complaints were even worse because the agents used the searches to provoke the adolescents. The guards would say things like, "I saw your mother naked" or "Your mother is pretty, she's hot”. It was very common for the guards to use this to embarrass the adolescents and this always ended up causing conflict and fights in the units. Here in Rio, there was a rebellion in the juvenile system due to an invasive body search of a mother and what the officer said to the adolescent afterwards. 

Based on these reports, the State Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture (MEPCT/RJ) began to include recommendations in its reports and to engage in dialogue within the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro. We also held a public hearing on this topic. In 2015, two laws were approved - Laws 7010 and 7011 - which prohibited the use of invasive body searches for visitors to prison units and juvenile centres.

What was very important at that time, besides the approval of the law, was the advocacy work that MEPCT/RJ did to guarantee the purchase and installation of scanners, as an alternative to invasive body searches. We wanted to avoid the excuse that "there are no resources to install the scanners". So we managed to get the Legislative Assembly to make a donation to both the Penitentiary Administration Department (Secretaria de Administração Penitenciária do RJ (SEAP)) and Office of Juvenile Detention Centres (Departamento Geral de Ações Socioeducativas (DEGASE)) to purchase and install the scanners. And after that, we continued to monitor and make sure that the scanners were properly installed and working. 

Natalia: Since the approval of this law, the number of complaints has reduced drastically. Drastically. We had news of two events in 2018 and, I think, a few in 2019. And they were isolated incidents, nothing compared to what was happening before. I think we can say that the law did have an impact. However, it is important to note that it had an impact from the moment that the equipment and resources to implement the law were provided. If these resources had not been provided, it would be difficult for the legislation alone to have had this result. Therefore,  we can say that the law had a very positive impact in terms of addressing this systematic practice against family members.

Nevertheless, we are witnessing setbacks to these positive developments.  From December 2021 to March 2022, we have received weekly information that invasive searches are on the rise again. They are happening systematically in at least six units, including in the biggest prison system compound in Rio de Janeiro: the Complex of Gericinó. We also have received reports that the number and severity of cases of this type of humiliating search intensified against families that visit juvenile detention facilities. Because of this very worrying escalation, a public hearing is scheduled to take place in the State Legislative Assembly to call for explanations and to address these violations.

APT: Why is it so complex and challenging to address strip searches? 

Natalia: The strip search is an institutionalised form of sexual violence within places of deprivation of liberty. The tendency is that if violence is not forbidden or restrained, it will escalate.  And the escalation of strip searches is rape condoned by law, right? For us, it is very important to point out here that rape already happens with strip searches. And the extension of this is what happened, for example, inside the Centro de Socioeducação Professor Antônio Carlos Gomes da Costa [where detained girls suffered sexual violence at the hands of security officers]. We understand that this is facilitated by this permissive culture in relation to sexual violence.

It was never easy to report invasive searches because it's not easy to talk about sexual violence. You expose yourself to a procedure that is very humiliating. If women are menstruating, they are insulted. They are called dirty, filthy, disgusting. And it's not only the humiliation of the procedure, it's the excess of sexual violence that's already happening. The re-victimisation. It’s challenging to talk about this, especially if the State thinks it's legitimate. So how do you report something that the State endorses and carries out?

APT: How do you monitor invasive searches in your work? 

Graziela: In our inspection visits, we are always asking, checking if the scanner is working. We request that prison administrations and juvenile detention institutions carry out the proper maintenance of the equipment. We also engage in dialogue with the families and ask them how the searches are done - "Have you been passing through the scanners?”, "How has the search been?" - so we can document this in our reports. We try to have this dialogue with the prison administration and family members, in addition to our direct observation.  When we arrive at the unit we usually also go through the scanner. So we can see for ourselves if it is working or not. These are the main ways we verify things. 

Natalia: As part of collecting information for the report on family members, we talked to family members in the queues. There is also an initiative that we developed, in partnership with Rio de Janeiro´s Desincarceration Front (Frente Estadual pelo Desencarceramento), almost two years ago, which is the Desencarcera RJ platform, through which we collect complaints, including anonymous ones. It is a very important tool for us to record what is happening to family members because not being searched does not mean they are free from violence. Violence happens in other forms. There is violence when families say they spent the whole day preparing things and then when they get to the prison, those things are discarded, the officers throw everything away, mix everything up. They are verbally aggressive towards the family as well. These other forms of violence continue to occur.

MEPCT/RJ is also actively involved in Rio de Janeiro's Desincarceration Front. And the Front is composed of many family members. Family members organise themselves to make the complaints. When there is a systematic violation, the family members organise themselves to report it. Sometimes 30 or 40 reports arrive on the platform or on our mobile phones. The other day 170 reports about food arrived on the platform. We are one of the groups that are receiving this information. But the complaints are also forwarded to the Ombudsman's Office, the Public Prosecutor´s Office and the Public Defender's Office. 

APT: How are searches carried out on women prisoners? Are women prisoners subjected to invasive searches? Is a ban on invasive searches of women deprived of their liberty possible, similar to the provisions of Law 7010/2015? 

Natalia: The post-visit search of women prisoners is very common. At the end of the visit with their family member and before the prisoner re-enters the cells, she will go through a search procedure. The detainee has to undress and squat naked. This is not done with all detainees. The officers choose who gets searched. And what we hear a lot is that usually, the ones chosen are trans women. That they are always chosen for strip searches, that the officers make jokes about them, about their bodies, humiliate them. Some of them even say that they don't like to receive visits because of this. 

It is also very difficult to mobilise people on the debate around invasive searches of prisoners. It is easier to have this debate when it comes to body searches of family members. With family members, these searches are seen as absurd, grotesque. But this debate does not stick when we are discussing prisoners. Because then, the security argument comes in very strongly. But this shouldn’t be the case. Prisoners could also pass through the scanner. The scanner is inside the unit, it's accessible. There really is no justification. It's one thing to say, “I couldn't pass 4,000 prisoners at once through a scanner”. But the prison administration does not pass 4,000 prisoners. It makes a sample and chooses which ones to search. Those who are chosen could easily pass through the scanners. 

With adolescents, it is forbidden.  Not that we don't have reports of this. But for the adult population, it is not prohibited. Today, there is nothing to stop public authorities from practising this violence against the prison population. 

APT: MEPCT Rio de Janeiro was also involved in advocacy for a bill, recently approved in Rio de Janeiro, which makes it mandatory that juvenile detention centres for girls be staffed exclusively by women. What had you observed in the units that drove this initiative?

Graziela: The identification of these violations began even before the Mechanism existed. There is a book, from 2003, “Para além das grades: elementos para a transformação do sistema socioeducativo” by Professor Maria Helena Zamora - I was even a student of hers - in which she describes her observation, in the female juvenile detention centres, of the officers putting bricks up to see the adolescents taking a bath. That was in 2003. 

When the Mechanism commenced inspection visits in 2011, we began monitoring this unit. There have always been reports of situations of sexual violence. For example, girls showing their breasts to the guards in exchange for some object or some authorisation. And the guards justifying that "because she wanted a cigarette", justifying it using the argument as if the girl was seducing him to get something. 

We also raised our concerns with the technical staff [i.e. psychologists, social workers and medical practitioners, etc], which is made up of only women. They completely disregarded what was happening. When we told them everything we observed, the answer we got was that they had never seen anything, that girls lie, girls are not easy, they seduce the officers. Once, we had a girl cutting herself in front of us.  We immediately reported it to the technical staff and were told that she was only doing it to get attention. There wasn't the least bit of health care, mental health care, within that unit for the girls. Not to mention that the best-known form of punishment in the unit, included in our 2013 and 2014 reports , is the ‘ballerina’. That is, putting a teenage girl, in her underwear and bra, handcuffed and standing on her tiptoes. 

Natalia: They also justified the situation by saying that nobody can stand this unit. That nobody can stand these women, nobody can stand hysterical women, and that it takes a man to control them because women cannot control women.

It is necessary to make a differentiation. In the male juvenile centres, there is classification by age. There are centres for young boys and others for adolescents. In the female juvenile centres, there is no distinction. Most of them are girls between the ages of 13 and 17 with fragile constitutions. And the situation is further aggravated by an attempt to antagonise them and create conflict between them. I think this was one of the cruellest practices of the unit. They tried to antagonise the girls who were suffering sexual violence as if it was their fault. And, after talking to them, we realised that all of them, in some way, had already been victims of violence or of attacks and harassment by the agents there.  

The draft law was originally proposed by the working group on girls and women in prison, which emerged after our 2016  report on girls and women deprived of liberty. We were already aware that Degase would not take any initiative to address that situation so we came up with the draft law proposal, which was presented by state parliamentarian Tia Ju. The bill remained there for years in the legislature, until this latest complaint. We went to the unit and heard the reports. We had already presented all the complaints to the Director, the Public Prosecutor's Office, and the Public Defender's Office. The adolescent who made one of the last reports is a trans adolescent. He identifies himself as a man,  and he is one of those who stood up to report it because when the abuse reached him, he just couldn’t stand it.