When the State Literally Invades Our Bodies

Brazil is a violent country. A sizable part of the population experiences many aggressions in its streets. However, violence in Brazil is present in prisons too. There, it can take very subtle forms, which very few people – except those who suffer from it – come to know about. Among these subtle forms of violence are the “vexatious searches.” On April 23, Rede Justiça Criminal launched a national campaign against vexatious searches in prisons.

The campaign’s website splash page warns us: “This campaign contains offensive language, and dramatizations are based on real accounts from the victims.” When we proceed, there is a new warning: “Close your eyes, put on a headset and feel the victims’ pain.” The stories are very moving. They speak of women and children who went to visit their incarcerated family members and had to strip and spread their genitalia open as well as squat three times before being allowed in the prison. “We can’t see inside. Open your vagina with your hands. There, that way I can see it properly,” a prison officer says in one of the accounts.

In a handwritten letter publicized by Rede Justiça Criminal, a woman denounces what happens in a São Paulo penitentiary:

We suffered constant humiliation and embarrassment; we had to pry our intimate parts open with our hands, lift our legs and rest them on the counter, put the finger in, crawl on all fours, and (…) if we are having our period, we cannot visit our relatives.

The institution defines vexatious searches as the “procedure to which people are submitted when they visit their family members in prison. This practice is known as vexatious search exactly because of its humiliating and abusive character. These people, children, adults, or elders, are required to take off their clothes, squat several times, and often have their genitals inspected (with no attention to hygiene whatsoever).”

Rede Justiça Criminal also notes that it is a harsh reality that approximately half a million people weekly in Brazil endure, while its effectiveness to prevent the entry of drugs or cell phones in the penal institutions is debatable: According to a survey, only .03% of the people searched in São Paulo penitentiaries are ever caught holding banned items. It affects disproportionately adult women, who make up 70% of the searched.

Researchers Raquel Lima and Amanda Oi also stress that the practice’s perceived legitimacy distorts the officer’s view of the situation:

And … those women who cry, try to cover their body with their hands, or demand their rights to be respected are treated as undisciplined and not as people reacting instinctively to an act of violence. Many end up being punished with loss of visiting privileges for at least 30 days, under the justification that they slow down work by the prison personnel.

We should not be surprised: Obedience to authority is an instrument of psychological desensitizing, as described by Milgram’s famous experiment. Without a culture of questioning power, there can be no respect to basic individual rights.

For that reason, the group calls for the approval of a new law which would forbid this practice (nowadays it’s left to each state to regulate it) and propose, as an alternative, the so-called “humanized search,” already employed in the state of Goiás.

A large public debate was needed about the subject in Goiás so that it would enact change. It was spurred by the publication by the Public Prosecution of a video in 2010 called “Vexatious Search – Visiting a Brazilian Prison.” According to prosecutor Harold Caetano da Silva, it was brought about by the “courage of a woman who allowed filming of her search under the old system and was willing to denounce, even if it meant exposing her own body, the abject institutional violence committed by the State of Goiás against the people, mainly women, of all ages, that experience the duress of having a relative, friend or partner convicted and incarcerated.”

As David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan pointed out, the existence of civil rights, and even the existence of a libertarian society, depends on a culture of freedom and individuality, where specific heroic acts are catalysts for change. Despite the human tendency to social conformity, the example of someone who rebels against an unjust rule makes it easier for other people to question it, creating a new opposing trend. The example of this woman in Goiás is firmly within this social dynamic, bringing about change that prevented many people from going through the same situation as her.

Prisoners’ families should not be penalized by vexatious searches. It is necessary to liberate Brazilians from yet another state violence. As libertarians, we cannot tolerate it if we ever want to live in a free society.

Translated from Portuguese into English by Erick Vasconcelos.

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