Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro Extends Illegal Unpaid Labor for Inmates

Brazil’s state of Rio de Janeiro has widened a “volunteer work programme” for which inmates receive reduced sentences and which human rights groups claim is illegal, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported last week.

prison bars jail imprisoned justice arrestBrazil’s state of Rio de Janeiro has widened a “volunteer work programme” .(Photo: pxfuel)In July 2018, Rio de Janeiro’s government created an unpaid scheme which enables inmates to reduce their sentences by one day for every three days of “volunteer labor.” The measure was part of an attempt by the state to address a debt of almost R$14 million (US$2.74 million) in backlogged payments owed to prisoners for labour carried out between 2016 and 2018.

It was intended as an emergency cost-cutting measure to keep Rio's prisons running, and was only supposed to last until January 2019. By April that year, the state’s Secretariat for Prison Administration (SEAP) had created 1,990 places on the program to meet a rise in demand. The scheme was formally extended in August 2019, and again on Wednesday.

While Brazil has one of the largest prison populations in the world, as much as 40% of inmates at any given time will not have received convictions. Facilities are overcrowded and underfunded, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declaring in an open letter issued on Tuesday that “the Brazilian prison system has precarious conditions, with difficult access to healthcare. 

By law, prisoners are entitled to 75% of minimum wage in addition to a reduction in their sentences in return for their labour. In Rio, inmates may earn US$145 a month and a 10 day reduction for performing maintenance work, cooking and cleaning. 

But a recent investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows that state prisons are only offering reduced sentences without any financial remuneration for inmates.

According to United Nations guidelines on how to treat prisoners, inmates must be paid a salary for their work. Part of their earnings should be set aside by the prison administration to be handed over to the prisoner on his or her release. The other portion of the salary the inmate can spend and send to his or her family.

Human rights experts and lawyers criticised authorities for making inmates work without adequate financial reimbursement.

“It is our understanding that the state put inmates in a situation analogous to slavery,” Reuters quoted on Sturday Natalia Damazio, a member of Brazil’s State Mechanism for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture. The independent body was created to document human rights violations in detention centers but has no power to alter public policy. 

Inmates told Reuters that they are not forced to work, but feel they have little say given their desire to escape the conditions of their detention.