The bureaucratic documentary practice related to the phenomenon of prisoners disappearance at the Alcaçuz Prison (State of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Presented to 47th European Group for the Study of Deviation and Social Control, august 2019.

Preliminary Working Draft.

Please do note quote or cite without author´s permission


Camila Prando (Professora Adjunta da Faculdade de Direito e da Pós Graduação em Direito da Universidade de Brasília e Coordenadora do Centro de Estudos em Desigualdade e Discriminação)


Several massacres in prisons have taken place in Brazil over the last decade. The official numbers announced at least 260 prisoners died in the massacres since 2010.

These events are related to the high rates of incarceration, the disputes between the organizations known as “criminal faction” and the state management of the prisons. Social organizations and families contest the official numbers of dead prisoners and announce a high number of missing prisoners who have not been found after the massacres. State governments do not clarify these cases. Meanwhile, the identification of the dead prisoners ́ bodies is not reliable due to the precarious procedures applied.

The National Mechanism against torture (MNPCT) in Brazil, an independent state agency, described the phenomenon of prisioners´ disappearance in the Annual Report (2017/2018). At that time the National Mechanism followed the cases of Monte Cristo Prison in the state of Roraima and Alcaçuz Prison in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. In the massacre at Monte Cristo Prison, the government announced 33 dead prisoners, while another 7 families claimed there were 7 more missing prisoners. In the massacre at Alcaçuz Prison, the government announced 26 dead prisoners and the Public Defense Report claimed another 71 missing prisoners.

The phenomenon of prisoners disappearance has not yet been consolidated as a public and juridical cause. Notwithstanding, this is not a recent phenomenon. The report by the National Mechanism against Torture declares that there is evidence that the prisoners´ disappearance has been reiterated despite the public and official invisibility in these cases. People who have lived or worked in prisons are familiar with stories that naturalize systematic body punishments and human rights transgressions. What is new is that these prisoners have disappeared in a period of power reconfiguration inside the prisons on account of the power dispute among factions, the mass incarceration and the political language of “massacres”.

I currently conduct a research about the phenomenon of prisoner ́s disappearance at Monte Cristo Prison (in Roraima) and Alcaçuz Prison (in Rio Grande do Norte). In this bigger research project I aim to follow these cases so as to understand how the public and juridical grammar are disputed by state agencies and civil movements in order to label the forced disappearance of prisoners.


Today I intend to present a specific investigation that is part of that project, where I analyse the case of Alcaçuz Prison, in Rio Grande do Norte. I intend to unravel the bureaucratic management of prisoners ́ disappearance. I will follow the documental bureaucratic communication among the National Mechanism against torture and the state institutions in Rio Grande do Norte (state prosecutor, judiciary and executive state government). To follow this communication, and its documentary production, its time, form, aesthetics and content will allow us to understand more about this form of management.

The case of Alcaçuz Prison in the state of Rio Grande do Norte

After the massacre, the Rio Grande do Norte government declared 26 prisoners dead. But during the National Mechanism visit at Alcaçuz Prison, some informants declared to the Mechanism´s experts that some bodies had been incinerated; others, buried in an improvised mass grave; while others, thrown into septic tanks. The Rio Grande do Norte government denied the disappearance of bodies and failed to produce a proper investigative report. The civil police failed to preserve the site of the massacre; the National Mechanism experts were informed that the septic tanks were emptied by water trucks after the massacre; the prosecutors refused to send the investigation inquiry to the National Mechanism; the judiciary, the prison administration, the civil police and the prosecution presented insufficient and contradictory data about the number of people that had not been found after the massacre.

The National Mechanism produced official documents to request information about the 71 missing prisoners to the prosecution, the judiciary, and the prison administration. The question was simple: where have these disappeared prisoners been?

Research findings

1- The list forms: the diffusion of responsibility and the diffuse agency of state problems

The official answers had a common characteristic: a letter of less than one page where they briefly announced that a list with the whereabouts of the prisoners was attached.

The lists sent to the National Mechanism were prints of the information system of the prison administration and the judiciary. These lists of names were occasionally not produced by the institution to which the National Mechanism requested information. For example, the prosecutor sent a ready list of names produced by the prison administration.

These answers denote that any institution to which information was requested did not perform an active search for the disappeared prisoners, but only presented the bureaucratic register of those names in the system.

The way they presented their answers in the form of a simple prisoner list also confirms what Mattew Hull claims about the form of lists in the bureaucratic documentary practices: the lists do not have a denotative aspect, do not serve to communicate anything, but only to control transfer operations (HULL, p. 261). The institutions do not play the role of competent and responsible agents in the cases of disappeared people. They do not go beyond producing a list of bureaucratic classifications.

This form of official communication demonstrates that the bureaucratic management of prisoners ́ disappearance constructs a passive and not active responsibility for those lives and bodies, confirming one of the effects of bureaucracy where the bureaucratic documents produce a privileged sense of diffusion of responsibility and a diffuse agency of the state´s problems (LOWRENKON, FERREIRA).

2- The bureaucratic classification and the opacity of documents

The official answers to the National Mechanism reveals a very messy scenario regarding the numbers and the identification of missing prisoners. Three different records systems point to different categories of classification on the list of prisoners: the prisoner status in the processual execution produced by the Judicial System; the prisoners´ roll call checked by the administration of Alcaçuz prison; the status of prisoners produced by the prison administration of Rio Grande do Norte.

These three different lists sent to the National Mechanism present another three research findings:

a) There are 17 prisoners from the list of the 71 disappeared prisoners that are not registered in any of the lists presented by the state agencies. They have disappeared from the documentary production. They are undocumented prisoners whose names have vanished from the recording system of the state. At the same time, the disappearance of the registers are not justified or regarded as a problem to be solved by the state agencies.

b) The classification of prisoners is contradictory among the lists. The same name classified as a recaptured fugitive on the prison administration list is classified as dead on the judiciary list; or the same name that is classified as a fugitive on the check list of the local prison is classified as a found prisoner in the judicial system.

c) In any one of the lists, the bureaucratic classification recognizes the label “disappeared prisoner”. The Prison Administration classifies as “fugitive” the prisoners that were not found in the Alcaçuz Prison on the day after the end of the massacre, even though the state has not actively searched for prisoners or bodies after the massacre.

The above research findings lead us to the following empirical and theoretical interpretations:

The bureaucratic documents as positivity: the production of state meanings

Inspired by the field of ethnographic documents, I take these research findings neither as the evidence of an inefficient bureaucracy nor as the demonstration of insufficient or lack of data. Instead, I follow the communication between the National Mechanism and the state agencies in Rio Grande do Norte as a way to manage populations so that the writing records are an important part of the state management (as Gupta, 2012, Das, 2007). In other words, the documents are not understood as a data repository or a simple producer of information. Rather, they are understood in the context of a production of state meanings and state practices.

The official documents are understood in their positivity so that their capacity of social construction can be taken seriously. They are seen as administrative documents that manage and generate relationships, people, things and responsibilities (Vianna, p. 53).

So, we can say that:

1) To classify the prisoners as “fugitives” in the bureaucratic records potentially conceals deaths and disappearances. This classification disclaims the state agencies from their responsibility for investigating the whereabouts of people in state custody;

2) Not to offer any information about 17 of 71 missing people characterizes a denial of information about people in state custody; whereas at the same time demonstrates that there is a phenomenon of disappearance of people in the state records beyond the disappearance of their own bodies.

The management of prisoners´ disappearance as the margins of the state: governing through ignorance

To Veena Das, the category “margins of the state”, more than a place represented as a weakening place of state regulation, is a social space which may offer a new theoretical framework to think the state beyond the language and the image of the liberal European state (DAS, Veena, POOLE, Deborah, p. 03). She studies some castes and events in India to operate this idea of margins. In her book other authors offer examples of margins inside urban cities and northern countries.

In Veena Das´ words:

“Our analytical and descriptive strategy was to distance ourselves from the entrenched image of the state as a rationalized administrative form of political organizations that becomes weakened or less fully articulated along its territorial or social margins. Instead, we asked how  the practices and politics of life in these areas shaped the political, regulatory and disciplinary practices that constitute somehow, that thing we call state” (p.3)

In this study I aim to apply this category of “margins of the state” to understand the management of disappeared prisoners. In this case there is a challenge to think as a ‘margin’ of the state what is a central repressive state policy against marginal populations, where the weberian ideas of bureaucracy are subverted by a practice of a documented ignorance.

This bureaucratic disappearance management produces a denial of the state´s responsibility and reveals another aspect of the bureaucratic dimension different from the usual idea of bureaucracy proposed in the weberian studies. Instead of a unified and controlled system of documentary written practices in the modern states, we see the diffused records systems, the contradictory records and the high number of papers produced in official answers yielding an official form of ignorance (HULL, p. 258). We can even conclude with David Graeber that there is a bureaucratic government that governs through the production of ignorance.

The disappearance of prisoners from the state´s registers, the contradictory information, and the use of the administrative category of “fugitive” in the state documents are all a means of management of a very specific population. They are a majority of young black people who live in the urban periphery of the Brazilian cities. In Brazil these people are targets of selective and illegal repressive policies abundantly evidenced in the literature.

These margins of state in the center of repressive policies of incarceration impinge on a marginal population, producing inequality through the state bureaucracy and its documentary practice (as Gupta, A, 2012). The disappearance of people from the state records is a form of management that not only produces inequality, but manages a racist policy which does not recognize the humanity of black lives.

In an ethnographic study about the autopsy report of people killed by the police in Rio de Janeiro, Juliana Farias demonstrates that the precarious records of the autopsy reports bureaucratically organize the order to kill the marginal lives in the city. The apparently careless way that the reports are produced correspond to the unimportance of undocumented lives.

Likewise, the successive “state signatures” (DAS, Veena) in each answer and each list sent to the National Mechanism organize a bureaucratic management of the deaths and the mute state racism in the phenomenon of disappeared prisoners