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Project advocates against violations of incarcerated women’s rights in Pernambuco

Funded by CESE’s Small Projects Programme, Liberta Elas (Set Them Free) collective constructs networks for non-violence against women in prison

The majority presence of male prison officers in Pernambuco’s female prisons leads to recurring violence and rights violations against women deprived of their liberty.  The Liberta Elas (Set Them Free) collective noticed the existing disparities in prison units and decided to advocate for the implementation of, primarily, the Penal Enforcement Law, followed by the Pernambuco Penitentiary Code, which prohibit the presence of male prison officers in female prisons.

The legal foundations also depend on article 51 of the Pernambuco Penitentiary Code, (Law 15,755, 2016), which establishes the need for a governor’s decree to regulate this issue.  The collective’s project “Constructing networks for non-violence against women in prison”, funded by CESE’s Small Projects Programme, was established to work directly on this issue.

According to Clarissa Trevas, a member of the organization, male officers are in the majority in the female prison system, particularly taking on the role of Head of Security. “It’s not only during visits when it’s clear that male prison officers move around the cells, but they are heads of security too.  So far, in my experience at Liberta Elas, I have only met one female prison officer,” she added.

The activist explained that legislation exists in Pernambuco in the form of the Pernambuco Penitentiary Code. “The Penitentiary Code contains an assertion that the team of officers within female prison units should be made up of women, however, there is no law explaining how this should work.”

For this reason, a governor’s decree is required to regulate and delineate the minimum and maximum percentage of male prison officers in female units. “The absence of this decree means that they fail to comply with both State Legislation, in the form of the Penitentiary Code, and the Penal Enforcement Law, both of which speak of the need for female prison officers within female prisons,” Trevas added.

Women in Prison – there are various reports of incarcerated women who have been the victims of harassment, threats, and physical, psychological and sexual violence. “Many women have described their vulnerability in relation to male prison officers: they do not feel safe, they have experienced violence from these officers, or they have heard talk of it happening to someone else.  The state commits other acts of violence within the prison system – these are not that different from the national prison system, which is marked by an unhealthy environment: it is not big enough to house all the women, it does not provide sufficient food, or water for drinking or bathing, it is overcrowded.  There are so many people in the same cell that they need to take turns to use the beds, because there aren’t enough mattresses for the women to sleep on at the same time.”

Within the scenario in the prison system of the multiple violations of people’s rights and basic conditions, it is important to add the marker of race: according to data collected by Liberta Elas, 86% of women serving time in the state are black or mixed race; 45% are young and 56% have not completed their Primary Education.  Another number that stands out is the fact that 54% of women who are imprisoned in Pernambuco have not been sentenced – in other words they have been incarcerated for months or even years, without being found guilty and sentenced.

According to Infopen Mulheres (2018) (the statistical information system about women in the Brazilian penitentiary system), currently 1,672 women are under the custody of the State of Pernambuco. Alongside the women deprived of their liberty, are their children, their mothers, their sisters and all the relatives who accompany a loved one’s custodial sentence, visiting them and helping them survive within the prison system.

“No woman should suffer violence because she is a woman, including women deprived of their liberty, who are in a state of such vulnerability and already live within a system ruled by a power relationship to which they are subordinate, to prison officers, men who have immense power over their lives, over their daily existence,” Trevas declared.  According to her, the debate about the situation of women deprived of their liberty very often focuses on the question of maternity, which is doubtless an important one, but there are other issues that take account of women’s diversity.

Visibility of Violations – In Brazil, common sense recognizes that the prison system is failing and perpetrates violations.  But even in the movement to defend women’s rights, little is said about the situation in women’s prisons.  One important project activity was to create a space to listen and document the experiences of 20 women who reported the violence practiced by prison officers within the units.

Liberta Elas has produced a document containing these reports, transforming them into an open letter to be disseminated by organized civil society.  The data surveyed underpins the training of the Network for the Struggle for Non-Violence against Incarcerated Women, dedicated to combatting violence against incarcerated women through political action and advocacy with the public authorities.  By implementing a communications plan designed for advocacy, the organization will ensure that the document reaches the media and those in responsible positions. The open letter will also be distributed to people queueing up for visits and those directly linked to caring for the women, so that they can appropriate the document and reports from survivors of violence.

“It is very important to place the situation of women deprived of their liberty on the social agenda, because they have several specific features.  One is the invisibility of the system, because of censorship and the closed-system of incarceration, which is presented as somewhere excluded from society, when in fact it is wholly related to it.  Because prison is a crossroads, where several issues come together: racism, the issue of class, the issue of misogyny and the question of violence against women itself,” the activist noted.  One perception is that the state only touches the lives of most of these women when they reach the prison system – not to guarantee their rights but simply to punish them.

Partnership – The Liberta Elas team participated in the Mobilising Support Course, run by CESE in partnership with support from Misereror, which created an important arena through which to view the complexity and diversity of the struggles of women in the country today. According to Trevas, “the training was essential in providing content and new strategies, demonstrating the importance of communication and new people to reflect on our own practice.” The course was part of the Change the Game Academy programme. CESE provides training activities to help strengthen and enhance its partner organizations, who acquire new tools to generate and raise funds, improve communications and provide visibility for their work.

“CESE plays a very important role, enabling small collectives to take bigger steps at this difficult time, when we are facing a global crisis.  They help us to take steps in a more mature and solid way,” she concluded.