The potential for the corruption of the authority of guards by prisoners, either individually or as members of gangs, is well documented in the Anglo-American literature. What distinguishes the situation of prison gang culture in Brazil are its origins in economic deprivation and political suppression, the extent of its apparent power within large numbers of institutions, and its integration with criminal culture in the outside world. Novitiate prisoners, who may initially have no connection to gangs outside prison and whose incarceration may be prolonged through the inefficiencies of the judicial process, may be recruited as gang members or followers, if not by intimidation then by the promise of informal provision of material facilities where state provision is almost totally lacking. In this article, we seek to analyze the symbiotic relationships between prisoners, their guards, and those responsible for running Brazilian prisons, which have institutionalized a sharing, in some cases the relinquishing, of de facto control of what goes on inside prisons and permitted the growth of some of the most powerful prison gangs to be found anywhere in the world. This article is based upon research conducted by the authors in six prisons in the city and state of São Paulo.

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