Brazil: Imprisoned Women in Precarious Situation

Absence of data and the growing female inmate population in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo has caused the Prison Pastoral and the Institute of Land, Labour and Civil Society (Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania or ITTC), in cooperation with the British Council, to carry out a study of the circumstances under which the incarcerated women live. The outcome of the study aims to call attention to the situation of these women and to seek an innovative proposal that the Sao Paulan government may consider, collaborating to establish an effective dialogue with authorities that takes into account the divergences and diversities of the daily lives of incarcerated women. 

"We really want the issues of gender that are present in prison to be recognized, without discrimination – equally when we are talking about men and about women. The perspective is that "the system should think" about the individuals, the families and the communities and their peculiarities. This new outlook is what will allow us to make the changes necessary for women’s rights to be respected. It’s not about privileges, but rather the application of the law and of rights", the study expresses. 

Prison overpopulation, lack of medical assistance, and the structural conditions of a penitentiary system that does not take into account the differences between men and women, are among the problems that are indicated by the inquiry. According to the investigation, the most recent statistics from the Secretary of Penitentiary Administration (available since February 2005) indicate a total capacity of 3410 women in Sao Paulo’s female prison system (semi-open and closed regimes). But the state’s total female inmate population was 8319, resulting in a deficit of 4909 places. 

There is greater investment in penitentiary system for constructions to accommodate men. This means that women incarcerated in penal institutions (excluding prisons) face an overpopulation of 119%. In February 2005, there were 4015 women residing in 3372 places. The construction of two new women’s penitentiaries and two new re-socialization centers and the consequent inauguration of 1200 new places, was not sufficient to accommodate the 53% of women inmates that are still detained outside of the penitentiary system, in public jails administered by the police under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Public Security. 

The study showed that the women’s right to be detained in single sex facilities is widely respected within Sao Paulo state. However, despite being detained in separate establishments, these facilities are not designed appropriately for women – the vast majority of penitentiaries and prisons having been "adapted" from existing men’s facilities. For example, only one of the female penitentiaries visited was equipped with a nursery adequate for women inmates to look after their babies. 

According to the study, "despite the detailed protection given to inmates as per international and national law, imprisoned women face serious difficulties regarding access to adequate health services. The women interviewed complained about a series of problems due to lack of medical treatment, ranging from relatively minor complaints to those that require specialised and urgent care".    

The things that impede women from receiving necessary medical care are: absence of medical professionals; lack of gynaecological assistance; scarcity of medications; questionable medical assistance facilities; and lack of personnel for specialised help.  

Violence against imprisoned women begins at the moment of detention and continues throughout daily prison life, with bad treatment related to inspection procedures within the prison – that is, during inspections, whether routine or not, police enter the prisons and penitentiaries in order to look for drugs or weapons. Women that occupy individual cells, in addition to the punishment of being isolated, are particularly vulnerable to abuse. According to the study, "this situation is aggravated by the fact that there are no witnesses to the practice of these irregular acts and we only have the story of the "undisciplined" inmate.  

"The gravest problem in the prison system is that the State does not comply with the legislation relevant to any hierarchy. If these norms were observed, and the legality respected, then surely we’d find a very different panorama to the one such indicated in the formerly mentioned reports – products of the countless visits that were carried out", concludes the study. 

The recommendations for improving the women’s prison system put forward by the study include: having transparency of data; encouraging support for research; monitoring of criminal processes and execution; creating a data bank, creating conditions conducive to reintegration; inverting the preponderant policy of building spaces for men to avoid the overpopulation of women’s jails; having projects appropriate for female conditions; giving incentive to family relationships such as visits from children and intimate visits; and installing public telephones inside prison establishments. 

In addition, it is necessary for imprisoned women to have access to medical programs, as these are not extended to jails; pregnant women must receive continued medical check-ups during the prenatal period; it is fundamental that the State give support to those that leave prison, having fulfilled their sentence, and for those that will go on to complete their sentence on conditional discharge; and the capacitation of agents and officials of the prison system is recommended. 

Originally published in Adital ( and republished here with permission of editor. Translated by translator, Rachel Eckersley