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The big smack


‘If you really step out of line, the staff form a corridor at night. They each pick up a piece of wood and the kid has to pass through the tunnel [while being beaten]. The name of the piece of wood is Kelly Key. She had a pop song that went: “Dribble, baby, dribble”. When it gets to the last bit, someone gives you a big fucking smack.’ Wellington – a 15-year-old street child – is describing life for young offenders doing time in Rio de Janeiro’s Padre Severino institution.

‘[These young people] experience ritual humiliation from the very moment of their arrest,’ says psychologist Patricia Tolmasquim. ‘When they come out their communication is completely stunted.’ She is just one of a number of social workers and psychologists who are becoming increasingly worried about cases of post-traumatic stress in hundreds of young people who have been locked up in these units.

Interviewed through crumbling grates – Rio’s young offenders.

Photo: Tom Phillips

In July 2005, Brazil’s juvenile justice law – the Statute of the Child and the Adolescent (ECA) – celebrates its 15th anniversary. In theory it’s a model law, going far beyond most existing international legislation. Yet according to a report released in June this year by Human Rights Watch (HRW) the Statute represents a ‘hollow promise’ to the 900 youths incarcerated in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It catalogues a gruesome list of abuses in Rio’s often run-down juvenile institutes, including ritual beatings, sexual abuse and inadequate medical facilities.

Entering through the thick walls of Padre Severino, the odour of stale sweat and cheap detergent hangs in the air. Queues of young boys file past silently, hands clasped timidly behind their backs. The sound of Padre Severino’s 260 inmates – crammed into 10 fetid cells intended for 160 – echoes eerily around the building.

I am repeatedly refused access to their dormitories. Instead I conduct interviews with a number of the inmates through a series of crumbling grates that offer the only source of light into the cells. The internees say that their room is full of cockroaches and rates (huge rats) that constantly urinate on their mattresses. ‘Lots of us have to share single mattresses,’ said one 14-year-old boy. ‘It gets so hot in here sometimes, it’s unbearable.’

A second report – released in July this year by MOLEQUE (a mother’s movement advocating for the rights of young people in detention) – described institutionalized torture throughout Rio’s youth detention centres. Following its release, Government officials are beginning to admit the extent of the violence. According to Dr Evandro Steele from the State Secretariat for Childhood and Youth, one of the greatest problems is that the authority in charge of such units (DEGASE) also controls the Ombudsman supposed to investigate internal abuses. Until this changes, it will be up to the boys’ families to continue reporting abuses.

Tom Phillips

New Internationalist issue 383 magazine cover This article is from the October 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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