Of Absences, Escapes, and Evasions in/from Incarceration: An Interview with David C. Thompson

Photo by Bernard Hermant

This post builds on the research article “Evasion: Prison Escapes and the Predicament of Incarceration in Rio de Janeiro” by David C. Thompson, which was published in the February 2023 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In his article, “Evasion: Escapes and the Predicament of Incarceration in Rio de Janeiro,” David C. Thompson focuses on evasion from prison custody in Brazilian prisons and argues that this evasion, which is often temporary, produces another mode of inhabiting the time and territory of incarceration. This post further investigates the phenomenon of evasion, paying closer attention to the absences, flows, and constraints that are experienced by the evadidos as they navigate through the various sites that they inhabit in evasion.

Riddhi Pandey: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. My first question is regarding the carceral institution Crispim Ventino that you describe in this article as a day release penitentiary. Can you tell us a little more about the prison system in Brazil, particularly addressing the place of day release prisons like Crispim Ventino in what you refer to as the progressive structure of the penal system? Are there several institutions like Crispim Ventino in Brazil’s prisons? What is the demography of the incarcerated people in these day release institutions? What kind of sentences do people serve here and for how long? Importantly, what do these day release prisons intend to achieve?

David C. Thompson: In absolute numbers, Brazil’s prison population is the third-highest in the world, after the United States and China. This is the result of a buildup over the last thirty years, including a particularly intense period of expansion between 2006 and 2016. Almost all prisons are governed at the state level, and there are often huge differences in how these institutions operate in different parts of the country. Still, both criminal law and the legislation governing punishment come from the Brazilian federal government. This is where the idea of progressive incarceration comes in. It is enshrined in the Law of Penal Execution, which states that all sentences should be “executed in a progressive form.” A big part of this vision is the idea of punishment as a gradual process of opening, and the corresponding division of prisons into closed, semi-open, and open regimes. This isn’t unique to Brazil—the penal systems of many other countries operate under similar models.

Today, there are two different forms of “open” punishment. The most common is house arrest, while day release prisons like Crispim Ventino are the minority. There are about twenty of them operating across all of Brazil, and only one in Rio de Janeiro (although there is also a day release wing inside an otherwise “semi-open” unit designated for women). Almost everyone imprisoned in these units has completed a significant portion of their sentence, and they generally spend between a few months and a year there, waiting for parole or release. Beyond that, most of my interlocutors in Crispim Ventino were there because they did not meet a requirement of house arrest, i.e. a house. For Rio’s penal court, this house is defined by kinship as much as place; it requires a family member who is willing to provide documentation of residence and to take on the role of jailer. Travestis, as well as other queer and trans people, were far more likely to end up in Crispim Ventino because they had strained or non-existent relations with those that the law recognized as family. Here they were joined by foreigners, homeless people, and those whose families lived interstate.

I find it difficult to identify or analyze intentions, especially institutional ones. Crispim Ventino in particular had multiple, conflicting goals. The establishment of open prisons was part of a broader push in the 1980s to revamp the entire prison system and to project an image of modernization and progress. These units also inherited long-standing reformative ideals that justified the creation of penal colonies and agricultural prisons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I don’t think that anyone who worked in Crispim Ventino or who was involved in its administration was particularly invested in this vision. Instead, the prison provided a vehicle for the state to abandon those who legally remained under its wardship, under this pretext of reintegration.

“I tried to approach the three positions of imprisoned, fugitive, and released not as negations of one another, but as three different ways of inhabiting and confronting what the article calls the predicament of incarceration, the binding force of these conditions of existence.”

RP: Through the course of the article, you unravel the various dimensions of the term evadidos, those who have evaded, are escapees. What are the origins, if any, of this term, and how is it commonly used in everyday life, both inside and outside the penal system? Is this only a tag given by the prison administration or a legal designation, or do incarcerated persons on evading also use evadidos to describe themselves? Most importantly, at one point you mention that by merely observing the everyday life and routines of your interlocutors, you could often not identify whether they were in evasion or had been released from the prison. Could you reflect on that a little more, and tell us something about what then is the actual difference between being evadidos and being free? In other words, if at all, how is the experience of freedom different from the experience of evasion for your interlocutors?

DCT: The term evasão (evasion) has many different applications in Brazil. I mention in the article that it’s used for truancy (evasão escolar), but it also refers to military desertion (evasão militar) and tax evasion (evasão fiscal). People can also be “evasive” when they avoid answering a question, just like in English. It seems to have emerged to describe prison escapes at some point during the nineteenth century—it isn’t used in the 1830 criminal code, but it appears in the 1890 one. Today, the prison administration and other institutions use the terms evasão and fuga (flight) interchangeably. I stuck with the former for two reasons. First, it’s the word that people like Hillary and Diana used most often to describe what they were doing. Second, it gave me a way to think about escapes as something less linear, less tied to destinations or points of departure.

That admission that I often couldn’t distinguish evasion from the regular rhythm of day release was a reflection on both my position as an ethnographer and the nature of evasion as a slippery object of analysis. When I started doing fieldwork around Crispim Ventino, I just had a bad sense of what was going on around me. But even when I began to understand the cycle of escapes and returns, there was no obvious mark that someone was evading unless they directly told me. I didn’t ask people every time we met if they were evading because it felt rude and accusatory, but I also got the sense that it was beside the point.

One reason it took me so long to attune myself to these evasions was because I assumed that prison escapes should leave some clear trace, almost like a scar. And here, there just wasn’t one. Evadidos generally stayed close to Crispim Ventino, mingling with those who were still serving their sentences. At any one time, some of the residents of the apartment on the third floor were evading, and others were not. Looking back, I’m still not sure if it’s useful, or even possible, to pinpoint the “moment” of escape, of stepping out from a prison sentence. Is it when someone left Crispim Ventino in the morning like they did every weekday? Or when they made the decision not to return? Or is it at 10:00 p.m., the deadline for return and the moment when their absence would be officially recorded? Ultimately the question seems futile because it presents imprisonment and evasion as mutually exclusive and searches for the threshold between them. That distinction is true in a legal sense, but for Hillary and Diana and many others, the choice they faced was not captivity or evasion, but rather how they could straddle the two to survive and sustain another kind of life.

My first answer to your question about the difference between evasion and freedom is a pragmatic one. Those who evade can’t access government services, including healthcare, because they risk alerting the police. They also lack some of the documents they need for formal employment. One incarcerated interlocutor suggested that those who escaped during the “big exit” were more confined than he was, because they would be stuck in their homes, too scared of the police to leave. That seems like an exaggeration to me, but broadly speaking there is a different calculus to how evadidos move through the city, shaped by managing these kinds of threats.

But the second answer comes from my engagement with Rinaldo Walcott (2021), who makes a critical distinction between emancipation and freedom. Here emancipation—the ongoing juridical project born out of slavery and still defined by the principles of property, tutelage, and security—is precisely what makes freedom, and Black freedom specifically, impossible. For Hillary and Diana, release from prison was not a release from policing, surveillance, or other forms of gendered anti-Blackness. That doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between being in and out of prison. But drawing on Walcott and others, I tried to approach the three positions of imprisoned, fugitive, and released not as negations of one another, but as three different ways of inhabiting and confronting what the article calls the predicament of incarceration, the binding force of these conditions of existence.

“There is a lot of speculative labor that goes on inside and around Rio’s prisons. They are anticipatory machines that constantly demand that their captives envision, perform and document “resocialized” futures for themselves to progress through a sentence and secure parole. There are also plenty of other aspirations that fall outside the plot structure of resocialization, like the image of the beach, or revenge fantasies, or plans for gender-affirming surgery, or when Diana talked about her desire to travel to Italy. These “beyonds” of incarceration almost always take the form of a life after it, which means that they’re also visions of survival, of making it through a sentence alive.”

RP: Your article very elegantly addresses the movement of your interlocutors between the sites of the castigo, the “open” prison, the third-floor apartment at the favela, as well as their complex choices (and at times lack thereof) to transit from one to the other, and the momentarily transformed status of these sites based on the everchanging status of your interlocutors. While being forced to largely remain confined within this ecosystem, did your interlocutors ever imagine a permanent escape or relief from it? Did they speak of any spatial or temporal other, which they had inhabited in the past, or hoped to inhabit in the future? If so, could you reflect on what forms of escape from their current situation of confinement preoccupied your interlocutors?

DCT: As part of my research, I developed and ran a set of workshops across a dozen penitentiaries, and these often included the question of what freedom (liberdade) meant to the incarcerated participants. In most cases, I received at least one reply that freedom was the beach—sitting on the sand, looking out over the water, or just the beach itself. The responses set up an implicit or explicit contrast between the confined, often dark space of prisons to the open horizon of the ocean. To me, they are also part of a very carioca (Rio de Janeiro) or coastal Brazilian moral geography. But even as I think through these images, I’m reminded of a warning that Hillary gave me once as we talked about her imprisonment: “Don’t kid yourself. It’s the same shit everywhere.”

There is a lot of speculative labor that goes on inside and around Rio’s prisons. They are anticipatory machines that constantly demand that their captives envision, perform, and document “resocialized” futures for themselves to progress through a sentence and secure parole. There are also plenty of other aspirations that fall outside the plot structure of resocialization, like the image of the beach, or revenge fantasies, or plans for gender-affirming surgery, or when Diana talked about her desire to travel to Italy. These “beyonds” of incarceration almost always take the form of a life after it, which means that they’re also visions of survival, of making it through a sentence alive. But there’s an ongoing tension between them and a clear recognition from most of my interlocutors that neither escape nor release were exits from policing, criminalization, poverty, and racism because it was “the same shit everywhere.” This tension constantly emerged across my fieldwork in different guises. People worked through it during and after their imprisonment, although they never seemed to resolve it.

I should also say that many of these real and imagined escapes were not something I could observe, often by design. While temporary evasions were more common, plenty of people fled Crispim Ventino and never returned. That’s not something I describe in the article because I can’t, since by escaping, these evadidos also left the bounds of my fieldwork. And people weren’t just evading imprisonment: they might also be escaping domestic violence, or criminal collectives, or old identities. Also, sometimes people evaded, or maybe just avoided, me. My work with Hillary and Diana was punctuated by silences, missed phone calls, inconsistencies, and abrupt changes of topic. These small ethnographic refusals brought me up against the limits of my own research, and they also remind me not to speculate about, or try to recapture, what moves beyond them.

RP: Your article demonstrates a continuous flux of incarcerated individuals between the multiple sites, carceral or otherwise. Whenever your interlocutors transit from one site to another, they leave behind a gap, their physical absence creates a temporary emptiness. Can you reflect a little on how their absence materializes in these spaces? For instance, if your interlocutors ever shared any insights on what happens to their apartment when they are not there for long stretches of time? Or when returning after a longish stint of evasion/in the castigo, what kinds of transformations do they have to navigate in the prison? Essentially, how does the negative presence of your interlocutors in the sites of their confinement transform these spaces? And on their return, how do your interlocutors navigate these now changed sites?

DCT: I’ll start by pointing out the context in which evasions take place. As Graham Denyer Willis (2022) notes, Brazil’s prisons manufacture disappearances, each incarcerated person indexes an absence somewhere else, and people easily become lost to the gears of the penal system. Prison escapes sit in this broader field of gaps or sumiços (vanishings): we can think of them as resisting these forms of absence, which is why I use Dora Santana’s (2019, 218) idea of fugitivity as the “refusal to lose oneself.” But you’re right that there is a flip side, the kinds of negative presence that emerge through these movements.

One clear and problematic absence created by evasion was an empty bed. Crispim Ventino was severely overcrowded, with enough beds for only half of those held in the unit. Incarcerated people responded by assigning beds based on the order in which people were transferred to the prison. When an evadido left a bed unoccupied, it was generally filled temporarily by someone else. But if they were gone for more than two weeks (plus the time spent in the castigo), they permanently gave up their right to it and had their name moved to the back of the waiting list. This was an important consideration for evadidos as they decided whether and when to return, especially since nobody wanted to end up back on the floor.

But more than any single escape or absence, it was the cumulative result of these movements, the constant flow, that really shaped these sites. Losing a bed is one thing, but an administrative system created by incarcerated people to assign them in the face of a constant churn of escapes, releases, and returns is another. This turnover in the prison population was a source of instability since it redrew the network’s power or solidarity among incarcerated people. But there were systems to manage movement, minimize disturbances, and fill the gaps, like the bed list. Another was the economy that emerged around the prison of local businesses that offered overnight or weekend storage for cell phones and other prohibited materials. I’m less sure about how this played out in the apartment. While there were some disturbances caused by an absence there, I think it also functioned as one of these stabilizing forces. The five renters were only absent for more than a day or two if they were being held captive in the castigo. From my perspective as a guest in the space, it seemed like the value of the apartment was its continuity as a site that would always be waiting for them.

RP: In this question, I would like to further probe an aspect which though is not central to your article but certainly emerges as critical in your ethnography. The ethnographic material in your article highlights the porosity, the arbitrariness, and the chaos in the carceral sites of Brazil. The use of these attributes to especially describe the prisons of the Global South is not uncommon. Around the world, we are witnessing a technological revolution in carceral settings, where the goal is to somewhat erase or reduce these characteristics, and often to use technological solutions to make prisons more effective in their incarcerating practices. In this regard, the prisons of the global South are constantly looking towards the prisons of the Global North. I would like to hear your experiences of how this transformation is unfolding in Brazil currently and how might it transform the experience of incarceration for your interlocutors.

DCT: None of the technological or administrative reforms that I saw during my research achieved their supposed benefits. The body scanners that were installed in each penitentiary to replace strip-searches and to clamp down on contraband often went unused; the company that manufactured electronic ankle monitors for those under house arrest stopped providing them because they were owed millions by the state government; and the new digital system for handling legal files just added another layer of bureaucracy, since it did not communicate with the separate database used by the prison system itself.

“Efficiency,” “security,” “modernization,” and “humanization” have all been mobilized in Brazil to justify increased funding for the prison system, including the construction of new penitentiaries. But they correlate weakly, or not at all, to the priorities of the prison administration. Discretion and arbitrariness are useful to correctional officers, other prison staff, and even some incarcerated people because they provide flexibility in governance, open space for lucrative prison economies (from contraband to systemic corruption), and allow both guards and the organized collectives of the imprisoned to maintain or renegotiate the conditions of confinement. I don’t see these technical fixes as fundamentally shifting the carceral landscape; instead, they have been absorbed and repurposed by it. The most profound technological change of the past decade has probably been the introduction and circulation of smartphones among the imprisoned, rather than anything introduced by the state.

Your question also raises the important issue of North-South comparisons—both the ones that our interlocutors use and those that we make as anthropologists. Brazilian politicians and prison administrations have historically looked to models of captivity from the Global North, particularly the United States, since the construction of the country’s first penitentiary. Today, prison reform activists in Brazil decry the “medieval” state of prisons by comparing them to the ones marketed by Scandinavian countries. But the Global North is not the only reference point. Recently, many in Brazil and across Latin America have turned to El Salvador, a nation with an incarceration rate now far higher than that of the United States, as a site of penal innovation. Its new “mega-prison” (set to be the world’s largest, with a capacity for forty thousand people) recently attracted widespread coverage across the region as another model of punishment, and another vision of “efficiency,” understood here as mass incapacitation and the stacking of bodies. Conversely, Brazil’s APAC model—a system of partially privatized prisons administered by a Christian NGO and promoted as a more “humane” form of punishment—has been exported across Latin America, the United States, Europe, and Asia.

As you point out, this North-South discourse has important material effects. But Brazil’s prison system is more than an imitation or a game of catch-up, and its violence is modern, not an anachronism that could be smoothed away by some technological or policy innovation from the United States or Norway. Such frames often emerge in academia as well, particularly since the North Atlantic, and especially the United States, dominate how we conceptualize incarceration. Some of these comparisons help me to think through the relationships between punishment and anti-Blackness in the Americas. But I also wonder, for example, what conversations you and I could have on prisons in Brazil and India that don’t begin with an assumption of “the South” as a common ground, and that are not routed through the supposed baseline of the North.


Willis, Graham Denyer. 2022. Keep the Bones Alive: Missing People and the Search for Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Santana, Dora Silva. 2019. “Mais Viva!: Reassembling Transness, Blackness, and Feminism.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 6, no. 2: 210–22.

Walcott, Rinaldo. 2021. The Long Emancipation: Moving toward Black Freedom. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.