Prison system – the labyrinth of punishment

Mona Hatoum, Cubo, 2008


Excerpt, selected by the organizer, from the recently released book

The 232.755st century marks Brazil's entry into the “era of mass incarceration” and official figures on the exponential growth of people imprisoned in the country leave no room for any kind of doubt about this. In the space of two decades, the national prison population jumped from 2000 (in the year 832.295) to 2022 (in the year 350), that is, a growth of more than XNUMX%.

The fact that we had at the head of the Federal Executive Branch, in this period of almost a quarter of a century, rulers of the most diverse political-ideological colors and party groups – Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB), in the center; Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) and Dilma Rousseff (PT), in the center-left; Michel Temer (MDB), on the right; Jair Messias Bolsonaro (PL), on the extreme right – seems to demonstrate that the “punitive wave” that hit the nation brings with it elements of determination that, in order to be properly understood, need to go beyond specific political circumstances.

Our neoliberal penal state – which swallows, government after government, amidst multiple tensions, the democratic state of law derived from the 1988 Federal Constitution – follows a global trend originating in the United States of America, but sinks its roots in a deep and receptive to its ideals and practices: the terrain of the social economic structures of a country that formed its dependent and peripheral capitalism from the violence of colonial slavery and an unequal development modality.[I]

Circumscribing, however, the situation experienced in the first quarter of the 21st century, what can be seen is that the gigantic Brazilian prison inflation is the result of a reality resulting from the perverse encounter between the prohibitionist “war on drugs” policy and detention permanent detention of prisoners without a definitive conviction – which ends up making provisional detention no longer an exceptional resource, but becoming more of a rule.

Having become a massive phenomenon, incarceration not only aggravates the inhumane conditions of the prison system, due to overcrowding, but also greatly contributes to the naturalization of the fact that prison is a space for imposing suffering on individuals and groups of individuals selected by the State, therefore: “Suffering and harm are inherent to any prison. The production of pain is inseparable from the State's power to punish. The very idea of ​​pity is the idea of ​​suffering. The power given to the State to punish is, ultimately, the power to inflict suffering” (KARAM, 2020, p. 35).

Thus, prison hyperinflation imposed by the neoliberal penal State enhances what has characterized prison since its historical genesis, due to the fact that: “In addition to producing suffering and violence, the State's power to punish promotes stigmatization, marginalization, inequality and discrimination, primarily targeting groups already at a social disadvantage” (Ibid., p. 37).

In this way, defended as one of the most important instruments for combating the crime that had been plaguing the country since its redemocratization in the 1980s, Brazilian prisons became an additional ingredient – ​​powerful, by the way – in the construction of a society that lives in fear of living under democracy, having opted for the “desire for a safe life in isolated spaces, segregated from social disorder and differentiated in relation to the dangers of contagion with unequals” (LAMIN, p.164).

As an extreme limit of distance from the “dangers of contagion with unequals”, the overcrowded Brazilian prisons of the “era of mass incarceration” represent not only a problem to be solved in the field of criminal law, but, also and mainly, a issue to be faced, through its retraction, so that Brazilian democracy survives and is democratized with the integration of those who suffer, inside and outside its prisons, due to the color of their skin and their social class.

*Marco Mondaini, historian, is a professor at the Department of Social Service at UFPE and presenter of the program Trilhas da Democracia.

Final considerations of chapter 1, entitled “The new end of prison”.


Marco Mondaini (org). Prison system: the labyrinth of punishment. São Paulo, Alameda, 2024, 298 pages. []


KARAM, Maria Lucia. “Abolish prisons: for a world without bars” in LAMIN, Cristiane. “Fear, violence and insecurity” in LIMA, Renato Sérgio de & PAULA, Liana de (orgs.). Public safety and violence. Is the State fulfilling its role? São Paulo: Contexto, 2021, p. 151-171.

PIRES, Guilherme Moreira (org.). Abolitionisms. Anti-punitive voices in Brazil and libertarian contributions. Florianópolis: Habitus, 2020, p. 33-40.


[1] See, in this regard: MONDAINI, Marco. “'Balance of antagonisms' versus 'unequal development': the place of the Northeast in Brazilian social formation” in MOTA, Ana Elizabete; VIEIRA, Ana Cristina; AMARAL, Angela (org.). Social Service in the Northeast. From origins to renewal. São Paulo: Cortez, 2021, p. 48-60.

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