Today we welcome a guest post by Karina Biondi, author of Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil. The Primeiro Comando do Capital (PCC) is a São Paulo prison gang that since the 1990s has expanded into the most powerful criminal network in Brazil. Biondi’s rich ethnography of the PCC is uniquely informed by her insider-outsider status. Prior to his acquittal, Biondi’s husband was incarcerated in a PCC-dominated prison for several years. During the period of Biondi’s intense and intimate visits with her husband and her extensive fieldwork in prisons and on the streets of São Paulo, the PCC effectively controlled more than 90 percent of São Paulo’s 147 prison facilities.
In the following post Biondi explains the origins of the PCC and how the ethical code of the prisoners’ organization helped end sexual violence in Brazil’s prison system.
In 1992, in order to contain a riot, police forces invaded the largest prison in Latin America and killed 111 prisoners. The event, known as the Carandiru Massacre, was illustrated in the Brazilian film Carandiru, directed by Hector Babenco. The film also seeks to portray the daily life of that prison, a space marked by violence among detainees, where physical force was one of the main factors in determining the material possessions and the sexual activities of the prisoners. Episodes of sexual violence were frequent, as were violent disputes over material goods and the conquest of spaces within the prison. Another factor that defined the life inside the prison was the financial capacity of the prisoner. There were, therefore, two ways of obtaining material goods and sexual services in prison: money or physical violence.
In the year following the Massacre, a group of prisoners at one of the most rigid penitentiaries in the country founded the First Command of the Capital (PCC). They wrote a statute expressing their intention to organize themselves to try to avoid the ill treatment to which they were subjected and, at the same time, to regulate the relations between the prisoners so that the ill treatment did not come from themselves. The proposal was that they had to come together to claim what they considered a worthy treatment in the prison system. In this proposal are the pillars of a new ethics in prisons of São Paulo: the union between the prisoners and the war against the prison system.
At the time, physical strength was not a PCC differential. The group was just one more among the gangs that disputed spaces inside the prisons. However, according to the prisoners, this proposal was seductive and quickly won adherents. Today, the PCC is a hegemonic force in the crime scene of Sao Paulo. It even grew along with the prison system itself. In 1992 the state of Sao Paulo housed 52,000 inmates distributed in 43 prisons, and now the PCC are present in over 90% of the 166 prisons, which house more than 232,000 prisoners.
The ethics proposed by the PCC, therefore, expanded throughout the prison system of São Paulo. According to the prisoners, it is thanks to the PCC that, on the one hand, episodes of sexual violence have been extinguished from prisons and, on the other hand, they have earned the right to an intimate visit (a striking example of the pillars of their ethics: peace among prisoners and war against the oppressive policy of the prison system). This change accompanied a drastic drop in the number of homicides in Sao Paulo prisons. In 1999 there were 117 deaths in a population of just over 50,000 prisoners. In 2016 there were 14 homicides among more than 230,000 prisoners. But this ethics also regulates the occupation of prison spaces, the transit and use of material goods, the forms of commerce and above all, the way in which these men lead their lives.
Considered by the state power as a criminal organization and approached by public debate only on occasions marked by its exceptionality, the existence of the PCC occurs in the most daily and even trivial practices of prison life. It has become a way of conducting life in the world of crime. And it is precisely these micropoliticals (conduced by the prisoners themselves) that have made it possible to extinguish sexual violence within penitentiaries.
Karina Biondi, author of Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil, holds a doctorate in social anthropology from the Federal University of São Carlos in São Paulo.