Prison Violence as Urban Violence

By Andrea Varsori

4 April 2020


The current Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have wide-ranging impact on most academic fields within the social sciences. The study of urban and criminal violence is similarly likely to be affected. With economic and social activities coming to a standstill across cities, some criminal and insurgent groups see their activities curtailed and their profits squeezed, while other gangs and non-state actors are stepping in to impose curfews and thus reassert their control over local residents.

The spread of the disease, however, has also sparked a series of prison riots in several countries. Between 8th and 9th March, 6,000 inmates revolted and 12 died in Italy, a country that has not seen spikes of jail violence in decades. On 16th March, riots broke out in four prisons in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, with hundreds of inmates escaping. On 22nd and 23rd March, 23 inmates died and 83 were injured in a riot in La Modelo prison, in Bogotá, Colombia. Such incidents are all linked to concerns regarding the spread of the disease within jails. They are thus likely to occur in other countries as COVID-19 spreads.

The novel coronavirus, however, is evidently only the most recent cause of prison violence. In 2019, Brazil had witnessed massive revolts in jails in Manaus (that saw 40 casualties in May) and Altamira (that had 57 casualties in July). Earlier this year, two riots in Cieneguillas jail, in Zacatecas, Mexico, left 17 inmates dead. Beyond the more apparent instances of collective violence, prisons are sites of violence at the individual level. Prison violence remains an issue that emerges across the world and is likely to persist.

Cieneguillas jail, in Zacatecas (Mexico), where 17 inmates died in two riots between December 31 and January 2. Credit: Cuartosocuro

This post contends that prison violence is an issue that belongs in the field of urban violence. In this author’s view, keeping the study of prison and urban violence separate is more often than not a mistake, proving more misleading than useful. It risks encouraging policymakers and the general public to disregard the links between jail violence and urban dynamics, a risk compounded by the fact that prisons, even when located within urban settlements, are usually considered as a liability by local residents.

Admittedly, establishing the relationship between urban and prison violence is complicated by the fact that the field of urban violence research itself is still in a state of flux: even though there is now a wealth of invaluable contributions to this topic, ‘urban violence studies’ is not properly its own academic discipline. Even the concept of ‘urban violence’ can be problematic – just as the definition of ‘violence’ itself. A common solution, adopted already by Caroline Moser in her 2004 article, is to identify a definition of ‘violence’ that will then be applied to urban areas. Moser’s definition covers several dimensions of violence (political, institutional, economic, socioeconomic, social, and structural). However, the choice of which dimensions need to be included may change from scholar to scholar. There is thus no consensus on this issue. Besides, another issue is often left open: what counts as ‘urban’? Is there a border between ‘urban’ and whatever is ‘non-urban’?

The notion of urban violence thus still seems beset by several conceptual ambiguities. Yet, this condition does not nullify its potential benefits. Rather, it prompts us to further explore this concept and understand its essence by probing its borders. Exploring prison violence as a type of urban violence helps us to do just that, offering a chance to further develop the scope of this field. This effort is made easier by the work of several scholars that, especially in the study of gangs, cross the border between prison violence and urban violence constantly. This work often takes the form of evaluating the importance (or lack thereof) of affiliation to a street gang in prison and vice versa (Skarbek 2014, 75-104), as well as the reach of a prison gang to the outside (Skarbek 2014, 131-50; Lessing 2016, 10-16), and the role of prisons in socialisation (Hagedorn 2008, 31).

The Carandiru Prison Complex, in São Paulo, Brazil, circa 1998. Credit: Evelson de Freitas/Folhapress/Arquivo.

As of yet, however, there has not been an explicit attempt at linking prison violence with urban violence, however defined. As a result, the connection between the two concepts, although evident in numerous studies, still lies unexpressed. Thus, the two notions risk remaining siloed, leaving the potential for related productive conversations and debates unrealised. This fosters an approach to both areas of study that disregards the several ways in which prisons and urban territories are connected and similar. This, in turn, confines the study of prison violence to its own, smaller subfield, preventing a more comprehensive scope of research.

Of course, it would be unwise to go to the other extreme and disregard the specific characteristics of prison violence. Jails indeed possess peculiarities that set them apart from other physical and social environments. There is also a large variation in types of prisons within and across countries, so arguments linking urban and prison violence must remain sensitive to the nuances of local context. Nevertheless, it remains clear that across the world prisons are generally denoted by a combination of segregation of the population from the rest of society, exercise of state strength and surveillance, top-down and directional design of living spaces, and concentration of criminal/insurgent networks and skills. In this regard, urban violence researchers may recognise factors that are not unique to prisons alone. Most importantly, many prisons possess characteristics that ensure that the violence within them is inherently urban.

This post thus highlights the underlying relationship between prison violence and urban violence. By doing so, it argues that the two should not be seen in isolation from each other. For reasons of scope, and due to the author’s main area of study, the predominant focus is on prison riots, a specific type of prison violence that is marked by its collective nature and its high lethality in relation to its relatively short time span. Prison riots are used here because they constitute a particularly visible type of prison violence, a phenomenon that can otherwise be hidden from external view. The argument presented here can be applied to other types of prison violence as well, whose importance should not be understated.

The remainder of the post argues that prison violence can be considered as a subtype of urban violence under three conditions: prisons are located in urban areas; they constitute an urban area in themselves; and, most essentially, they are part of the urban fabric – even when they are hundreds of kilometres away.

Prisons within urban areas

The first condition under which prison violence can be considered as a subtype of urban violence is whenever prisons are placed within cities. Physical location alone may not be a good indicator of the link between a prison and the surrounding city; sometimes, however, it can set the scene for such a connection to flourish. Often, prisons are located – purposefully – outside urban areas. This is the case for the United States, where non-metropolitan counties received a disproportionately large share of prisons in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (Engel 2007). It was also the case for São Paulo state, with the construction of a large number of prisons in the more remote regions of the interior since the 1990s (Godoi, Araújo, Mallart 2019). It is mostly older jails that are situated within cities: they had often been built outside of the settlement proper, but rapid urbanisation encroached on them and integrated them. Several of the most recent prison riots took place in these kind of jails: the La Modelo prison, where 23 inmates died on 23rd March, is located within Bogotá’s urban territory; the same applies for Italian jails such as San Vittore (Milan), Poggioreale (Naples), and Regina Coeli (Rome), all of which witnessed riots earlier this month. Other examples include HMS Pentonville in London and instances of now closed jails, such as the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the Carandiru Prison Complex in São Paulo, and the Frei Caneca Prison Complex in Rio de Janeiro.

Flames and smoke at Regina Coeli prison during the protest of the detainees, in Rome, Italy, 09 March 2020. [Author: Angelo Carconi]

The fully urban location of such prisons means that violent events within them can quickly have repercussions outside – especially in the case of riots. The Carandiru Complex has shown this several times. The 1992 riot, which ended with 111 inmates killed by the Military Police, quickly saw the gathering of a crowd of relatives, friends, and partners tensely demanding news on the safety of their loved ones. After this incident, the gathering of such crowds became a regular occurrence at subsequent outbreaks of large scale violence at the Complex. Prison riots in Carandiru thus became widely public events in the São Paulo region; inmates, organised from 1993 in the First Command of the Capital group (Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC), were acutely aware of this and frequently used contacts with journalists to increase the publicity of their rebellions (Souza 2007, 7, 17-18). State authorities, in turn, became particularly sensible to the effect of these events on public opinion. Especially after the 2001 “mega-rebellion”, which saw Carandiru joining 28 other jails in a coordinated riot, São Paulo authorities decided to close the prison complex and transfer the inmates to newly-built jails in the more rural interior of the state. The publicity surrounding urban prison riots was clearly a factor in this decision, adding to the more general tendency to isolate jails from the rest of society (Godoi 2015, 149-150).

Prisons as urban areas

Prison violence can be considered as a subtype of urban violence when jails are considered as a type of urban area. Prison environments share several characteristics with urban environments. They are man-made, densely inhabited living spaces. While segregated from the rest of the city, they are rarely entirely disconnected: flows of goods and people persist, although they need to be authorised (legally or through corruption) by prison authorities. Separation from the urban fabric is not peculiar only to prisons, after all: it can be seen as an officially sanctioned and (depending on the context) somewhat stronger variant of the segregation  – for example – between poor informal neighbourhoods and wealthier areas. Old proposals to build walls around some of Rio’s larger favelas, such as Santa Marta and Rocinha, demonstrates a logic of explicit isolation of already marginalised areas. This observation resonates with a wealth of studies highlighting the marginalisation of poorer neighbourhoods, as well as the use of violence and surveillance to reinforce this process (see, for example, Koonings and Kruijt 2013).

In regard to the top-down design of prisons, this holds only where prison authorities keep effective control of the institution. Otherwise, prisoners have some leeway in rearranging internal spaces; in some cases, inmates may even have effective control of the jail, a condition that reached its fullest realisation in San Pedro Prison in Bolivia (Skarbek 2010), and has also been witnessed in the United Kingdom (such as at HMS Bedford), despite sharp differences in context. The allocation of inmates to different sectors according to their criminal group affiliation is often a policy of prison authorities, but it is also an effect of the influence and diffusion of said groups. This is an attested phenomenon in Rio prisons (Leeds in Koonings and Kruijt 2007, 25), as well as in the prisons where the 2017 and 2019 riots occurred. In this context, the latter episodes can be seen as a violent and direct attempt by prisoners not only to eliminate rivals, but also to reorganise and remake the prison, namely by rendering its population and thus its governance more homogeneous.

City-prison social links

Prison violence can be considered as a subtype of urban violence also by seeing prisons as part of the urban fabric through the inmates themselves. After all, prisoners make the prison: their links with their home city can maintain a jail connected with the latter’s urban dynamics. This is demonstrated at its clearest by the case of the PCC. Established in Taubaté in the interior of São Paulo state, the group’s founders all came from São Paulo city, with this fact reflected in the very name of the group. Similarly, Rio’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho, CV) was founded in a prison on Ilha Grande, an island 110km away from the city; yet, they all came from Rio and, as soon as they could escape, it was to Rio that they returned to resume robberies and drug dealing (see the examples of Zé do Bigode and Escadinha). In general, while its influence on the management of the jail varies from context to context and should thus be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the urban origin of inmates can constitute a fundamental factor in linking a correctional institution to a specific city. This, crucially, applies wherever the jail may be located.

A prison built in a different city, or even in an otherwise completely rural setting, may well be considered as an integral part of the city from which the inmates originated if they continue to keep contact with the groups they belong to. Whilst it is true that being incarcerated far away from their hometown sometimes does sever the links between a prisoner and this urban context, there are many exceptions. For example, the development of mobile and digital communication has, in many respects, negated the socially disrupting effect of geographical distance that remote prison locations may once have had. In São Paulo, the diffusion of mobile phones in the early 2000s meant that PCC members were still able to organise the 2001 multi-prison riot, as well as kidnappings outside the jail, even after being transferred to a different state. With family members and friends playing an important role in relaying messages to the outside, the fact that the PCC started to organise and pay for the transport of visitors from São Paulo to rural prisons after the central Carandiru complex was closed meant that a vital channel of communication was maintained – and, with it, a link to the city itself (Jozino 2004, 162-165).


All the cases outlined above point out to the existence of underlying links between the violence that happens within jails and that which happens without. Relating violence in prisons with that of urban environments is a necessary exercise for those who seek to fully understand both sides of the equation. Ultimately, prison violence is not going to disappear any time soon, as the recent riots have demonstrated. Urban violence researchers, however, need to keep a close eye on the instances and dynamics of prison violence. The presence of prisons in cities, their inherent commonalities with urban territories, and their inhabitants’ links with the urban social fabric mean that violence behind bars may be inextricably linked with the violence outside – indeed, it may be one of the keys to understanding its roots.

Andrea Varsori is a UVRN coordinator. He recently successfully defended his PhD thesis in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His doctoral research seeks to explain the extraordinary resilience of Rio de Janeiro’s drug dealing gangs by charting their history and correlating changes in territoriality, relations, and membership with increased survival chances. You can follow him on Twitter at @Andrea_Varsori.


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