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"Resocialize to Conquer the Future": Incarceration and Reform in Rio de Janeiro

  • Author(s): Thompson, David C
  • Advisor(s): Holston, James
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the interventions made in the lives and futures of those incarcerated in Rio de Janeiro’s men’s prisons in the name of “resocialization.” I argue that resocialization – the network of practices oriented towards “reforming” or rehabilitating those in prison – animates the prison system and structures how both prison workers and the incarcerated apprehend and navigate the institution. That is, prisons come to understand, treat, analyze, punish, and ultimately release, those within their custody based on a simultaneous promise and demand for resocialization. They do so despite the prevalence of violence, overcrowding, and an entrenched culture of punitivism both within the criminal justice system and in Brazil more broadly. At the same time, many of those in prison are invested within the same normative trajectory of reform against which they are held accountable by prison workers. As such, the motto of the state prison administration – “Resocialize to Conquer the Future” – represents a legal and moral injunction to reform that structures prison life and governance.

The analytical focus of the dissertation centers on the points of encounter between incarcerated people and those workers or volunteers whose work falls under the broad mandate to resocialize. I examine the engagements of public defenders, evangelical missionaries, and psychosocial “technicians” with rehabilitative projects and procedures. Additionally, I follow incarcerated people both during and after their imprisonment, as they endeavor to build and pursue futures for themselves while also struggling to pursue the ideals and expectations set out by resocialization’s narrative. The relationship between these two groups, I argue, channels a series of anxieties surrounding race, gender and kinship, concerns that shape what becomes recognizable within the institution as a properly reformed subject. As a result, resocialization functions through foreclosure as much as potential or possibility; it becomes a tool wielded within prisons towards both punitive and emancipatory ends, often blurring the distinction between the two.

Through this analysis, the dissertation offers a new form of engagement with resocialization, and rehabilitation more broadly, that remains open to its variegated effects beyond any ostensible successes or failures. I also demonstrate that the social continues to serve as an anchor for the project of incarceration, since both prisons and the imprisoned come to be understood in reference to “society” even as they are positioned as outside it. By underlining the anticipatory nature of prisons, I contend that incarceration constitutes a key site that determines what individual and collective futures are imaginable, particularly in the context of Brazilian democracy and its expanding penal state.

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