Prisoners’ understandings of the law, role of scriveners, race, color and ethnicity in Brazilian carcereal punishment

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Last week, while pouring over pages of a newspaper published in 1831 in the Brazilian National Library in downtown Rio de Janeiro, an inquisitive group of high school students who were taking a tour of the library peered over my shoulders and bombarded me with questions like “How old of this newspaper?” and “Where are you from?” But the hardest question to answer is what and why is exactly are you, an American, doing here. I was not able to give a clear response.


The simple answer is I am doing exploratory research to assess the feasibility of writing my thesis on prison reform in Rio de Janeiro in the nineteenth century. I have been in Brazil for a little over two weeks and I have already found some interesting documents and newspapers. I have been visiting the National Archives and the National Library every weekday (with the exception of the day of Brazil’s first World Cup game, which fell on a last Tuesday).
A more complicated answer is that visiting these institutions has forced me to reconsider the archive as an epistemological space and think more critically about its role in historical knowledge production. The particular prison that I am interested in the Casa de Correção started construction in 1934 and was completed in 1850. The National Archives, likewise, was founded in 1838. The contemporaneity of their formations raises the question if these institutions were not created under the same process of nation building, the formation of disciplinary institutions and the creation of national histories and repositories of knowledge.
Jonathan M. Square, PhD Candidate, History

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