Working Paper 202

The Promise of Paper: files, movement and “progress” in a Rio de Janeiro men’s prison 

David Thompson 

Department ‘Law & Anthropology’

Year of publication

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Working Paper 202

The prison system of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, functions through a series of documents that make the incarcerated available as objects of legal knowledge and intervention. This bureaucratic system, in turn, fulfils a federal legal mandate for a progressive model of imprisonment. In this paper, I consider the production and circulation of a set of legal documents within a single men’s prison in Rio de Janeiro, one that I call Tobias Barreto. I offer a close examination of the files that proliferate within the prison, with an emphasis on one document – the criminological exam – that forms a nexus between penal courts, prison administrators, treatment workers, and incarcerated people. Through a rigid set of evaluations, these documents render the history and futures of the incarcerated person as evidence, a process that underpins any “progression” through a prison sentence. I argue that while documents relay an assurance of progress, this assurance is undercut by a generalised suspicion regarding incarcerated people’s claims of having reformed. The analysis highlights both the tensions and the complicity between progressive governance and punitive violence.

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