SÃO PAULO – After Brazil’s prisons imposed restrictive measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints of torture in correctional facilities increased by 70 percent, according to the nation’s bishops.

The Prison Pastoral Commission of the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil received 90 reports of torture in the country’s penal system in 2020 compared to 53 cases in 2019.

“The pandemic led the Brazilian state to close the prisons to visitors. So, an institution which is already marked by secrecy became even more inaccessible,” Lucas Gonçalves, the Prison Pastoral Commission legal advisor, told Crux.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons have suspended all kinds of visits to inmates. The Prison Pastoral commission’s representatives, clergy, and even relatives have been forbidden from meeting with prisoners in most Brazilian states, with few exceptions.

Gonçalves said that most complaints about torture are made by family members after visits, meaning the true number is probably far higher.

The commission’s report on torture in 2020 showed that there were 53 reports about physical aggression and 13 complaints of violence with the use of different kinds of instruments – from pepper spray and tear gas to knives, whips, and ropes. Cases of asphyxiation with wet towels and plastic bags were also reported.

Cases reported to the commission in 2020 also included 9 deaths and 8 interventions by the police.

“Prison agents and the police felt more confident to commit acts of violence with the pandemic and the prisons shutting to visitors. That has always happened, but now it’s worse,” Gonçalves said.

Most of the cases reported – 74 – involve the participation of correctional agents in the practice of torture and physical aggression. Another ten cases involve the police, who storm prisons when there are riots.

“The problem is that many times very banal occurrences are seen as riots and the police are called to act violently. It’s an excuse,” Gonçalves said.

The handling of the pandemic in the prison was also a frequent reason for complaints.

“The way prisons are dealing with COVID-19 is torturous on its own,” the Italian-born Father Gianfranco Graziola, theological advisor for the Prison Pastoral Commission, told Crux.

The concept of torture adopted by the commission – acts to deliberately cause pain in the detainees – also include different kinds of violation of human rights, including negligence in providing healthcare services for detainees.

Graziola said that the commission had from the beginning of the pandemic warned the prison directors that the coronavirus would spread across the system with terrible consequences.

“And that was what happened. But they’ve always tried to downplay the seriousness of the disease and to disguise reality. Even during videoconferences, they controlled what the inmates told their relatives about the prisons’ conditions,” he added.

The official number of detainees infected with the novel coronavirus released by the authorities covering the period until October was 41,468, with 128 deaths – out of a total number around 760,000 prisoners. The Prison Pastoral Commission claims the real numbers are much higher.

“Under notification has been huge. The Brazilian State didn’t test the prison population massively. The official number of infections doesn’t represent what’s really happening,” Gonçalves explained.

According to the prison authorities, 183,214 tests were carried out in 2020.

“Asymptomatic prisoners with COVID-19 haven’t been tested. So, there’s a manipulation of information by the state,” Gonçalves said.

He added that some prisoners told the commission that there had been inmates with symptoms of COVID-19 in their prisons, but the correctional facilities refused to run tests. The commission’s report on torture lists 67 complaints of negligence in providing healthcare services to detainees.

“The State has been negligent and allowed the disease to spread throughout the penal system, causing disease and deaths. The virus has been used to kill prisoners,” Gonçalves said.

The report also mentioned 52 complaints of negligence in providing basic items for daily life – including food, clothes, and personal hygiene products – another 52 complaints of humiliation and degrading treatment of prisoners, including obliging them to get naked, and 22 complaints of violation of the rights of the prisoners’ relatives, like failing to inform them about the inmates’ health condition and suspending visits.

“None of that is new. But the pandemic intensified all problems that already happened. Those acts violate the penal legislation and harm the people in the deepest part of their being,” Graziola said.

According to the priest, the detainees’ right to receive spiritual assistance has been completely disrespected during the pandemic.

“We’ve been doing our best to keep communicating with them, mostly by letter and through messages recorded in USB flash drives,” he said.

Gonçalves said that all complaints have been reported by the Prison Pastoral Commission to the authorities, but most of them haven’t even been answered.

“Unfortunately, the efficacy of our work regarding the monitoring of such complaints is rather low. Only one case motivated a police inquiry, but it ended up being dismissed,” he added. “But we believe that denouncing torture and violence may force the State to back off.”

A recent survey showed that racism has also been growing in the Brazilian penal system. Black prisoners account for two-thirds of the prison population, and most of them are poor.

That’s why Clariane Santos, a member of the Prison Pastoral Commission in the city of São Paulo, believes that torture is a growing practice.

“Torture is a tool used against prisoners to demonstrate power. That’s how Black people are controlled in the poor suburbs across the country,” she told Crux.

Santos also said she thinks a significant part of Brazilian society ignores the reality in prisons and believe that detainees enjoy a good life with the taxpayers’ money.

“We have to deal with such kind of fake news every day. Brazilian prisons dehumanize detainees. To be imprisoned is to be automatically tortured,” she said.