The Catholic bishops of Brazil are decrying worsening conditions and alleged torture in the country’s prisons during the pandemic, as evidenced by a lengthy report released last week. 

The report, compiled by the Prison Ministry Office of the Bishops’ Conference of Brazil (CNBB) and released Jan. 22, documents alleged torture of inmates including physical aggression with weapons, pepper spray, and tear gas, and various humiliating or degrading conditions such as forced stripping. 

The Church in Brazil has been documenting alleged incidents of torture in the Brazilian prison system since 2014. There have been nearly 400 incidents reported since then, mostly by family members and friends of inmates. 

Incidences of torture could be even higher than reported, as the suspension of family visits in most areas means that evidence of torture is less likely to be detected, the report asserted. 

Brazil is home to over 800,000 inmates, the third highest prison population in the world, after the United States and China. 

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The CNBB received 90 complaints from prisoners of ill-treatment between March 15-Oct. 31, 2020. This is up from 53 reports received during the same period in 2019, and 44 in 2018, they said.

Only eight of the 90 reported torture incidents led to an investigation by the Prison Ministry, the report said. 

According to data collected by the National Council of Justice (CNJ) of Brazil, rates of coronavirus infection in Brazilian prisons increased by 800% between May and June 2020, and death rates doubled. 

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The bishops have criticized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic.

The CNJ recommended allowing prisoners suspected of having or diagnosed with COVID-19 to be placed under house arrest rather than remaining in a crowded prison. 

Torture and violence in Brazilian prisons is not a new phenomenon. 

In Oct. 2019, a federal prosecutors in the Brazilian state of Pará issued a report stating that members of a security task force had been torturing prisoners by way of “beatings with brooms, daily attacks with rubber bullets and pepper spray, impalement of the anus, and the piercing of feet with nails, among other atrocities,” the Brazilian newspaper El País reported.

President Bolsonaro reportedly rejected the report’s contents. 

Brazil's prisons have long been overcrowded, underfunded, and overwhelmed by gang warfare. According to Brazilian daily Folha de S.Paulo, 372 inmates were killed inside the nation's prisons in 2016.

Gang-related riots at prisons in northern Brazil killed nearly 100 inmates in early 2017, the deadliest prison riot since 1992.

In March 2019, a prison riot in Pará killed at least 62 prisoners. 

International drug trafficking is a major problem in the northern area of Brazil, and criminal gangs exert significant influence from inside prisons in the region.