Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world. Renata Tavares da Costa has been working as a public defender in Rio de Janeiro for the past ten years. She agreed to give an exclusive interview to Prison Insider on her analysis of the situation and the mechanisms, which in her opinion, contribute to the awful misery in the country’s prisons.
"You can paint the cell walls, build bookshelves, but the experience of being locked up is still more destructive than the crime."
Prison Insider. Explain us, in preamble, what is your public defender activity?
RENATA TAVARES DA COSTA. Every international treaty guarantees that a prosecuted person has a lawyer that he/she can trust to defend him/her. The American Convention goes further in that it obliges the states to assign a lawyer, in cases where the person is not able to do so.
Historically, the American states, especially the Latin-American ones, ensure that a competent professional provides complete free legal assistance to people who cannot afford a lawyer.
In Brazil, for example, this assistance, provided by the state, is the responsibility of the Defensoria [Public Defender, Renata Tavares Da costa].
The Defensoria is an independent institution ─like the Ministry of Public and the judicial authorities─, which has its own budget and works with legal professionals selected by public competition.
PI. What are the mechanisms in Brazilian prisons?
RENATA TAVARES DA COSTA. The prisons of Brazil are the new slave houses, the senzalas. Brazil is the result of a genocidal history against a group of people, in this case, the black population. Years ago, white people lived in large houses with everything they needed, at the expense of the senzala, the African descendants who were reduced to slavery.
Since then, these vulnerable people have remained oppressed; at first, by slavery, and now, by a legal system dominated in large part by white heterosexual male jurists. Poverty is another essential factor.
By classifying people according to their race, social class, and gender, the actors in the system decide on who will benefit from the justice proceedings according to where they are on the social spectrum. The application of this law explains the third largest prison population on the planet 1.
It is in this context that we find the Brazilian prison system, with its massive incarceration, its lack of water, food that is past the expiry date, etc…
The lack of the most basic needs is creating an incredible level of stress and violence. It is in this climate that criminal elements appear on the scene and take over.
PI. Do you think the prison system has changed in the last few years?
RENATA TAVARES DA COSTA. It has regressed! Prison is prison. You can paint the cell walls, build bookshelves, but the experience of being locked up is still more destructive than the crime. Brazil incarcerates many and incarcerates badly!
PI. Have you ever witnessed a prison event that was particularly striking to you?
RENATA TAVARES DA COSTA. I think the event that struck me the most in my eight years as public defender was the one when a child was separated from its mother.
One day, as a prisoner was being visited by her three-year-old son and his grandmother, a guard suddenly called the young woman and she had to leave. Her son chased after her sobbing. I broke down in tears. No crime committed by this woman can justify this kind of suffering. I still cry about it today.
According to World Prison Brief, the countries with the highest incarceration rates are the United States, in first place with 2,121,600 prisoners (in 2014), followed by China with 1,649,804 (in 2014) and Brazil with 682,901 (in 2016).↩
Article written by Camila Guedes Translated from the Portuguese by Joanna Gherardi
Translated by Mar Mc Millan Edited by Zoltán Ladányi