Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 243–262 | Cite as

Rio’s New Social Order: How Religion Signals Disengagement from Prison Gangs

  • Andrew JohnsonEmail author
  • James Densley


Brazilian prisons are governed by two prevailing forces—gangs like the Comando Vermelho and inmate-led Pentecostal prison churches. The current study uncovers how one of these governance institutions (the church) facilitates disengagement from the other (the gang). Based on ethnographic research inside two Rio de Janeiro prisons, we find the rituals and taboos of the church—including baptism, daily worship service, sharing resources, loving and literally embracing other members, including outcast sex offenders—enable ex-gang members to demonstrate the sincerity of their disengagement from gangs. We make sense of these findings using signaling theory, which has been applied both to the study of gangs and crime desistance and to the study of religious commitment. Some implications for “gang redemption” policy and programming are discussed.


Prison gangs Disengagement Signaling theory Pentecostalism Rio de Janeiro 



This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Law Enforcement and Criminal JusticeMetropolitan State UniversityBrooklyn ParkUSA

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