Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography Of Prison Life And The PCC In Brazil
Author: Karina Biondi
Publisher: Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 222p.
Reviewer: Sacha Darke | January 2019
Originally published in 2010 as Junto e Misturado (translated in Sharing this Walk as Mixed Up and Together), this is one of just a handful of academic texts to focus on Latin America’s largest prison gang, São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital: PCC). The author, Karina Biondi, is unique in being the only ethnographer of crime in Brazil to have completed in-depth studies inside as well as outside prison. This study, originally a master’s degree thesis, was conducted during the many hours Biondi spent visiting her husband over six years in the mid to late 2000s, while he was remanded in custody for an offence he was later absolved. Brazilian male prisoners typically receive visits once a week for up to eight hours. Seventeen in 20 retain contact with their families throughout their sentence. Visits usually take place in the prison wing cells and exercise yards, out of the sight of correctional officer supervision. São Paulo’s prisons are effectively governed with the support of prisoners selected by inmate leaders on behalf of the inmate body (most commonly referred to in Brazil as the coletivo: collective), but at the same time usually subject to de-selection by prison managers. As in other parts of the country, these faxinas (literally, cleaners; translated in the book as housekeepers) usually occupy the first cells on a prison wing or (on in a multi-level cell block with separate entrances for each floor) individual landing. They are responsible for everyday dealings with prison staff as well as maintaining discipline, resolving disputes among prisoners, monitoring newcomers, and more mundane tasks such as cleaning, distributing meals and organising rotas for time spent out of cell. Depending on the prison, inmate leaders, traditionally referred to collectively in much of the country as falanges (phalanxes), may themselves live and work as faxinas. More often, they direct operations from other cells. So long as inmate leaders remain in charge, correctional officers have little reason to enter the wings other than to unlock cell doors in the morning and lock them again in the late afternoon. Even these tasks are increasingly being displaced by electronic automated systems. Biondi notes that São Paulo’s remand prisons are mostly built to the same design. Each holds over 2,000 people in the main part of the cellblock, which consists of eight wings (another 100 or so prisoners are likely to be held on one of two separate wings reserved for segregation and vulnerable persons. Even on a good day, when there are no staff absences or prisoner transfers to deal with, no more than 12 guards are likely to be stationed in the main cellblock, in a central corridor that runs between the wings. After lock-up, a maximum of six guards will be on duty. Today, approximately one in twenty remand prisoners work as faxinas. Just one in a hundred remand prisoners are ‘baptised’ as PCC members (irmãos or irmãs: brothers or sisters).
As I have written in more detail elsewhere (Darke 2018), Brazil’s tradition of inmate governance has historical roots and is premised in informal practices and accommodations between and among prisoners, prison managers and guards. These naturally vary from one prison and one prison wing to another. In the opening pages of Sharing this Walk, Biondi emphasises that major differences in inmate governance continue in the contemporary drug trafficking, criminal gang era, even across the PCC dominated prisons of São Paulo. In the past, Brazilian prison managers helped to create and facilitate systems of mutual aid and protection among prisoners by allocating them to wings and corridors according to the area they lived on the outside. Starting with the emergence of the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1980s, and the PCC in São Paulo in the mid-1990s, Brazil’s inmate coletivos have, in the words of prisoners, united under the umbrella of prison-wide, even state-wide criminal comandos (commands) or facções (factions). The PCC is by far the most successful of these prisoner organisations. By the mid-2000s, Biondi explains, the PCC already governed the daily lives of 90 percent of the state’s then approximately 150,000 prisoners. Today, São Paulo boasts more than 250,000 prisoners. If it were a nation, São Paulo would be among the top ten incarcerators in the world.
Under these conditions, Biondi found herself in the unenviable position of having weekly, unsupervised access to prisoners and their families just as the PCC was consolidating its position among São Paulo’s prisoners, and prison managers and guards were coming to terms with the inevitability – whether interpreted as need or advantage – they would end up governing their prisons alongside them. From time to time her research site would change, as her husband was transferred from one place to another. The result was a ground-breaking comparative, ethnographic account of everyday prisoner and staff-prisoner interactions and accommodations across a number of remand prisons during a time of radical transition in inmate politics. Junto e Misturado is skilfully edited and translated here by John F. Collins, himself also a cultural anthropologist and published on Brazil. Sharing this Walk also includes a new afterword where Biondi introduces her more recent doctoral research on PCC governance in São Paulo’s urban quebradas (literally, brokens: in São Paulo slang, ghettos). In this latter research, entitled Etnografia no movimento: Território, hierarquia e lei no PCC (Ethnography in Action: Territory, Hierarchy and Law in the PCC), Biondi extends her analysis to the means by which the PCC operates outside as well as inside prison. She has since returned to prisons research. Ethnography in Action was recently adapted for publication as her second major book (Biondi 2018). Besides the afterword of Sharing this Walk, Biondi sets out her developing position on the organisational structure – or as she discovered early on in her fieldwork, the absence of structure – of the PCC in a number of recent or forthcoming original papers published in English (Biondi 2017b; 2017c; Biondi 2019).
In the introduction to Sharing this Walk, Biondi introduces the reader to the three main themes of her research previously suggested–that São Paulo prisons are relatively orderly in spite of staff shortages, and that PCC prison governance largely operates independently of gang hierarchy, and manifests differently from one prison to another–through narrative accounts of some of the more paradigmatic moments of her fieldwork. Of these, three are particularly illustrative. The first, experienced five years into Biondi’s research, is of a woman she encountered who had put in charge of the queue of families waiting for their turn to enter by one of the prison’s irmãos. When the wife of another irmão challenged her authority to change the established procedure to a first come, first served basis (the only exceptions being pregnant women or the mothers of very young children), she immediately phoned the first irmão, who confirmed her right to use her own judgement in the absence of further instructions. Biondi had not encountered a prisoner overseeing the order of family visits at any of the other prisons she had previously studied.
Biondi’s second opening account concerns a day she was subjected to a particularly invasive and humiliating intimate search by prison officers. Afterwards she discovered other visitors had recently had similar experienced. The prison’s irmãos subsequently requested a meeting with the director, where they explained guards had overstepped the mark in their treatment of prisoners’ families, and warned they would not take responsibility for any prisoner who took it into their hands to enact revenge. The director adhered to the prisoners’ demands. In later chapters Biondi goes on to describe in detail how São Paulo’s prisons are governed through detailed staff-inmate negotiations. Prison directors do not have the material or human resources to run their institutions through coercion alone. They rely on inmate leaders to maintain order, and on prisoners’ families to make up for shortages in state provision, including clothing, bedding, medication, even cleaning products and toilet paper.
The third introductory account in Sharing this Walk I focus on here concerns a potentially dangerous situation Biondi’s husband faced when a second prisoner he had invited to share his cell asked officers to move him onto the vulnerable persons’ wing after he had fallen into debt. To make matters worse, the indebted prisoner had arranged for cell phones to be smuggled into the prison on order for some of his wing-mates, who were now concerned he might turn them in. Biondi explains that, according to inmate codes, her husband had effectively vouched for him and become his mentor. As a result, he was required to account for his failure (which he successfully did) at a hearing (a debate: debate) convened by other prisoners and presided over by gang members.
Biondi explores the key themes of her research–what I summarise here as order; hierarchy; variation–in detail in the following chapters. Regarding order, we learn of the depth to which prisoner relations, and to a lesser but still important extent prison staff-inmate relations, are governed by unwritten rules. More specifically, we learn of the importance to São Paulo prisoners of the concept of proceder (translated in the book as comportment). With a few exceptions (mainly, sex offenders and former criminal justice workers), prisoners who subscribe to the established inmate codes at a particular prison–its regras de convívio (rules of collective living) or regras de proceder (rules of comportment) are accepted as PCC primos (cousins). Among the major examples of rules introduced by the PCC to support prison order, Biondi gives the examples of bans on the use of crack cocaine, the sale and consumption of cannabis with prisoners that have fallen into debt, the carrying of weapons, buying and selling cell spaces, and the use of violence without prior judgment by the accused’s peers. Regarding staff-inmate relations, Biondi highlights the existence of informal agreements that neither inmates or staff should be assaulted during prison rebellions, and that guards should not enter cells without warning. Biondi emphasises that the PCC’s authority is accepted by São Paulo inmates in some prisons, for instance youth prisons, despite having no official gang members at all. At least one of its expected norms of behaviour (the reciprocal ban on violence during uprising) predated the PCC era (see, e.g., Varella 2008). The PCC has had a major impact on rates of prison violence and disorder in the state of São Paulo. Official prison homicide rates fell from 117 in 1999, when the gang was still in its infancy, to 14 in 2016 (Biondi 2017a). There has not been a major prison riot in the state since 2006, the year Biondi explains the PCC finally consolidated its position.
As for the reasons for the decline in prison disorder, in spite of São Paulo’s cell blocks being governed by so few prison guards and gang members, Biondi draws attention to a rapid shift in the trajectory of the PCC in the early to mid 2000s from a centrally commanded to a broadly non-hierarchical organisation. Alongside the issue of variation covered in a moment, this observation takes Sharing this Walk far beyond the perspective of organised crime adopted by the mainstream of PCC research. Indeed, Biondi describes the PCC as an organisation of criminals as opposed to a criminal organisation. It should not, she emphasises, be studied as a group or society but instead through the post-structural analytical lens of sociality. The leadership of the PCC is neither fixed nor all powerful: it is not “an economically focused hierarchical institution–or parallel power to the Brazilian state” (Biodi, p.41). São Paulo’s prisoners are instead united by common purpose, “by means of what [they] refer to as ‘the walk’ (a caminhada) … a corresponding and shared destiny [the path towards which] each participant is responsible for creating” (p.9-10). Biondi notes that prisoners’ shared interests are reflected in the PCCs guiding principles of guerra com as polícias (war with the police) and paz entre os ladrões (peace among thieves). However, as I have already indicated, she is less interested in the purpose as the means of the PCC: “the animating contradiction that the PCC belongs to no individual, but gains definitive form in relation to what other individuals do… what leads thousands of people who typically do not know each other to participate in the same walk” (p.120-121). These means, she indicates, were radically altered after the PCCs current leader, Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho (also known as Marcola), introduced the word igualdade (equality) to its founding mantra of paz (peace), justiça (justice) and liberdade (liberty). Whatever Marcola’s underlying motives, prisoners subsequently took t upon themselves “to construct a command among equals” (p.126). Today, the PCC operates mostly without authorship. In theory, anyone can occupy a PCC position; PCC irmãos act “in the mane of the party” (p.128). “The walk [has become] the Command” (p.121).
Finally, the PCC manifests differently in different places, partly as a result of the PCCs lack of hierarchy, and partly I would contend a result of a broader cultural distrust in bureaucracy and law (noted by Biondi in the slightly different context of prison management, for instance, when she describes her experiences of rules over the conduct and treatment of visitors changing on a week to week basis), and the importance Brazilians instead place on informality and negotiation (here noted, for instance, when she describes senior PCC members holding weekly meetings with prison managers). Biondi gives as a major example the PCCs infamous salves (communiqués), which she explains can be issued by any PCC member and are understood by São Paulo prisoners as recommendations rather than commands. While the more serious measures aimed at mitigating conflict mentioned above–the ban on weapons and so on–have come to be widely accepted, others–for instance, an ending of the practice of preventing homosexual men from living among the coletivo–have not. In contrast to the formal legal system, Biondi adds, even the PCCs system of dispute resolution, its debates, are largely indeterminate. PCC hearings adhere to notions of procedural propriety, typically requiring witness testimony and majority guilt finding, but they do not adhere to notions of precedence or seniority (cf. Feltran 2011; Marques 2014).
Sacha Darke is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and co-director of the Research Centre for Equality and Criminal Justice in the Department of History, Sociology and Criminology, University of Westminster, UK
Biondi, K. (2017a, 23 January). The extinction of sexual violence in the prisons of São Paulo, Brazil. http://uncpressblog.com/2017/01/23/karina-biondi-the-extinction-of-sexual-violence-in-the-prisons-of-sao-paulo-brazil. Last accessed 4 October 2018.
Biondi, K. (2017b). Movement between and beyond the walls: Micropolitics of incitements and variations among São Paulo’s prisoners’ movement the ‘PCC’ and the prison system. Prison Service Journal, 229: 23-25.
Biondi, K. (2017c). Prison violence, prison justice: The rise of Brazil’s PCC. NACLA Report on the Americas, 49(3): 341-346.
Biondi, K. (2018). Proibido roubar na quebrada: Território, hierarquia e lei no PCC. São Paulo: Terceiro Nome.
Biondi, K. (forthcoming 2019). Facing up to the PCC: Theoretical and methodological strategies to approaching Brazil’s largest “prison gang”. In C. Garces et al. (Eds.), Carceral communities: Troubling 21st century prison regimes in Latin America. Under contract with University of Pennsylvania.
Darke, S. (2018). Conviviality and survival: Co-producing Brazilian prison order. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Portuguese version (in press): Convívio e sobrevivência: Ordem prisional em cogovernança (trans: Karam, M.L.). Belo Horizonte: D’Placido.
Feltran, G.S. (2011). Fronteiras de tensão: Política e violência nas periferias de São Paulo. São Paulo: Unesp.
Marques, A. (2014). Crime e proceder: Um experimento antropológico. São Paulo: Alameda.
Varella, D. (2008). Estação Carandiru. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras. English version: Varella, D. (2012). Lockdown: Inside Brazil’s most violent prison (trans: Entrekin, A.). London: Simon and Schuster.