Between 2013 and 2016, police in one Brazilian city killed 3,287 people—66.5 percent of whom were black. It might not seem surprising, then, that this place is also one of the only in the world that has a prison just for police. But this prison is exceptional, a “model” place, as those who run it say. It isn’t “dungeon-like” or a “warehouse of black lives,” as scholars describe prisons in this country and elsewhere. Among an apiary, a tilapia pond, and groves of citrus trees, few police are here because they killed on the job. Using ethnography from in and outside this prison, we examine narratives of socialization, redemption, and mundane and exceptional killing to illustrate what operates beneath the public veneer of the punishment of police. This lays bare key assumptions about the function of policing and the possibility of reform amid capitalism, in a vital moment of global political rupture. To speak of impunity for police violence, or of iterative gains in reform, is to dramatically misunderstand the work of policing.
The Exceptional Prison
Samira Bueno holds a PhD in public administration and government from the Getulio Vargas Foundation and is the executive director of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. Her research and publication interests include criminal justice policies, human rights, public security and violence, police practices, and police-citizen contact.
Graham Denyer Willis is a senior lecturer in development and Latin American studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His ethnographic work examines questions of lived politics, violence, policing, and the political conditions of death and disappearance. His first book, The Killing Consensus, was published in 2015.
Samira Bueno, Graham Denyer Willis; The Exceptional Prison. Public Culture 1 September 2019; 31 (3): 645–663. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7532775
Download citation file: