In the past Brazil has tried to overcome overcrowding by using shipping containers. This is now being put forward as a solution to the impact of Covid-19 on prisons.

In the past Brazil has tried to overcome overcrowding by using shipping containers. This is now being put forward as a solution to the impact of Covid-19 on prisons.

The possibility of using containers to isolate prisoners who may have Covid-19 is being analysed by the CNPCP (National Committee for Criminal and Penitentiary Policy). This proposal, which is harshly criticised by civil society, has a long history in Brazil and is re-emerging as a measure to rectify the lack of places and conceal the causes of mass incarceration.

In 2010, UN officials, diplomats and representatives from delegations and embassies who attended the 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council, held at the headquarters in Geneva (Switzerland), were perplexed to hear reports by Brazilian non- governmental organisations concerning serious violations in the Espírito Santo penitentiary system.

In addition to ill-treatment and overcrowding the Pastoral da Criança,  Justiça Global and Conectas drew attention to, at least, 500 men in iron containers, inside which room temperature reached as much as 50 degrees.

These improvised ´cells´ were known as ´microwaves´ by the prisoners, as the people detained in them were almost cooking. The United Nations and the OAS (Organisation of American States) considered the practice as “analogous to torture” and an “attack on human life”.

For further reading: NGOs condemn proposal to isolate prisoners in containers to combat Covid-19

Immediately following this condemnation, the 6th session of the STJ (Superior Court of Justice), awarded a writ of habeas corpus to an accused who was being held in one of these structures in the Provisional Detention Centre in Cariacica in Espírito Santo and his pre-trial detention was changed to house arrest.

Despite international repercussions and this paradigmatic judicial decision, the use of this ´model´ has not been confined to Espírito Santo over the years. The Pastoral Carcerária, connected to the CNBB (National Conference of Brazilian Bishops), which has been working inside Brazilian prisons for decades, reported the use of containers as
cells in at least three states in the country: Mato Grosso, Pará and Paraná, to the CNJ (National Board of Justice), the Ministry of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2016, the then Secretary for Public Security in Rio Grande do Sul, Cezar Schirmer, announced the use of the metal structures to increase the number of places in the state prison system. At a press conference he stated that the experiment in Santa Catarina had been “a great success” and that opinions to the contrary were “prejudiced points of

A decision to disburse R$70 thousand to purchase containers was issued by Judge Carlos Fernando Noschang, at the Criminal Court of Novo Hamburgo. However, a move by the state Public Defender´s Office in 2019 prohibited their use and ordered relocation of prisoners to detention centres.

In the same year, in an incident that was dubbed ´The Altamira Massacre´, in Pará dozens of prisoners locked in container cells died of suffocation caused by smoke from a fire arising from a dispute between factions.

In March of this year, Depen (National Penitentiary Department) announced the use of iron shipping containers as an alternative to prison units in facing the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus.

According to the organisation, the objective is to isolate elderly prisoners and other groups that could suffer from complications, such as people with diabetes, hypertension and asthma, at risk from Covid-19.

In order to be implemented by states, the measure must be voted on and approved by the CNPCP (National Committee for Criminal and Penitentiary Policy).

Conectas and other organisations have lodged a new international condemnation to prevent the National Penitentiary Department from obtaining authorization.

The effects of the tin prisons

According to the UN special report on mental health, “solitary confinement and prolonged indefinite detention, including decades of detention in prisons and other closed environments, has a negative influence on the mental health and well-being” of people deprived of liberty.

Apart from the psychological effects there are concerns over a lack of oxygen inside the installations and the excessive heat noted in the ´microwaves´ of Espírito Santo.

In March, the CNJ published a recommendation sent to the Justice Courts requesting revised sentences for prisoners who are most vulnerable to the pandemic, i.e. the elderly, those with chronic respiratory illnesses and other complications. The same should apply to pre-trial detainees – with no final conviction – in the case of less serious crimes and to prisoners in open or semi-open schemes.

“Instead of holding people prisoner in metal structures, the Ministry for Justice should adopt the recommendations of the CNJ, which offer viable solutions for this situation, such as revising sentences and observing information from the World Health Organisation that clearly state that efforts to control Covid-19 must be the same inside and outside of detention units.” Said Gabriel Sampaio, Coordinator of the Conectas programme for Combatting Institutional Violence.

Find out more

Receive Conectas updates by email