Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART
Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART

Rio de Janeiro — Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state has unlawfully extended an unpaid labour scheme for prisoners denounced by human rights experts as a form of modern slavery, official documents obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation reveal.

Brazil’s penal system has long relied on cheap prison labour in its overcrowded, underfunded jails, with inmates cooking, cleaning and maintaining quarters in return for about 748 reals ($145) each month, and slightly reduced sentences.

However, the cash-strapped government of Rio de Janeiro created a category of “volunteer labour” in July 2018 whereby prisoners had sentences cut for working — but were not paid.

The programme — framed as an emergency cost-cutting measure to keep Rio’s prisons running — was meant to end in January 2019 but was extended by a state judge until August last year.

However, it has been established that the scheme is still running, though documents provided by sources with knowledge of the matter show a request to prolong the programme until 2021 have not been authorised by judge Rafael Estrela.

The sources confirmed that Estrela — who first sanctioned the scheme — had not approved any extension sought by Rio’s Secretariat of Prison Administration (SEAP) beyond August 2019.

The Brazilian State Mechanism for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture — an independent body that documents rights violations in detention centres — said the scheme is akin to slave labour and has no “appearance of legality” without judicial approval.

“It’s one more illegality ... in something that is already illegal,” said Maira Fernandes, a lawyer and former president of Rio’s penitentiary council, a state advisory body.

SEAP did not reply to questions about the scheme’s legality. It said about 1,190 inmates had signed up voluntarily, with their sentences cut by one day for every three days of work.

Inmates have said they are not forced to work but they feel they have little choice as they want less jail time and the state’s prisons would fall into disrepair as they are already housing nearly 53,000 prisoners — about 20,000 above capacity.

Estrela did not respond to requests for comment but said he sanctioned the scheme last year because prison authorities had insisted they had no money for inmates’ wages and that without his authorisation, the entire jail system risked collapse.

Prisoners rights at risk

In 2016, Rio de Janeiro declared a period of “financial calamity” that was set to run until 2021 but which the state governor said last year had to be prolonged until 2023.

SEAP requested the voluntary prison labour scheme be extended until the crisis ended, with no money to pay inmates, according to one document reviewed.

The state owes almost R$14m ($2.74m) to inmates for work done from 2016 to 2018 — before the voluntary scheme was created — according to one of the documents filed by SEAP. 

By federal and state laws, working prisoners must be paid 75% of a minimum wage as well as having their sentences reduced. Denying such payments contravenes UN guidelines on how to treat prisoners, and human rights experts and lawyers have said Rio has effectively been forcing inmates into slavery.

Labor prosecutor Guadalupe Couto said there are two ongoing investigations relating to prisons in Rio: one focused on working conditions, and the other on lack of payment.

Couto is part of a group of prosecutors set up by the labour prosecutor’s office last year to discuss prison labour due to concerns about recent efforts to weaken the rights of inmates.

In Rio, a state bill tabled last year sought to make the voluntary labour scheme permanent, while a proposed 2015 federal law that would see inmates pay for their stay in prison has gained momentum this year and is set to be put to a vote soon.

“We are studying these bills ... so that the labour an inmate does is recognised and they receive at least the minimum wage,” said Couto, who specialises in slave labour cases.

• Thomson Reuters Foundation