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Full article is available here: DOI: 10.1177/1057567719849485


Prison Riots in Nicaragua:

Negotiating Co-Governance Amid Creative Violence and Public Secrecy

Julienne Weegels 1

International Criminal Justice Review


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10.1177/1057567719849485 journals.sagepub.com/home/icj Abstract In this article, I explore how prison riots, large

Abstract In this article, I explore how prison riots, large critical incidents of a collective order, emerge, take place, and alter governance relations in place in the Nicaraguan prison system. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted with prisoners and former prisoners of two Nicaraguan prison facilities, I provide a prisoners’ point of view on the political use of violence in prison, particularly during two large prison riots. While authorities often held that prison conditions combined with the “violent attitudes” of prisoners turned prisons into “powder kegs,” such an interpretation does not allow for an understanding of riots as embedded in prison governance structures and conveniently draws the attention away from underlying issues pertaining to the de facto sharing of power in prison in Nicaragua. I argue that by using what has been termed “creative violence,” prisoners attempt to break through the authorities’ imposed regime of public secrecy and draw attention to these issues, forcing authorities to negotiate. Yet, even if riots then function as a catalyst for changes in co-governance arrangements, they do not appear to be geared at permanently damaging or annihilating the existing arrangements but rather at pressuring the authorities hard enough to make compromises and concessions as to the distribution of power in prison.

Keywords prison riots, prison governance, order, violence, Nicaragua

Introduction: Embedding Prison Riots

Prison riots often figure in the social imaginary either as heroic rebellions of the oppressed or as proof of the incorrigible nature of locked-up “criminals.” Yet unlike the popular imagination or many prison systems’ post facto justifications of prison riots would have it, prisons are not actually “powder kegs” waiting to explode with the slightest spark. After all, such narratives could not account for the

1 Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Corresponding Author:

Julienne Weegels, University of Amsterdam, Roeterstraat 33, Amsterdam, 1018WB, the Netherlands. Email: j.h.j.weegels@cedla.nl


fact that no riots occur in the majority of prison systems most of the time (Sparks, Bottoms, & Hay, 1996; Sykes, 1958/2007). But what is it then that propels prisons into temporary crises of institutional order? Many prison researchers have sought to answer this question; to identify the reasons that prison riots happen when (and where) they do, and what might be done to prevent them (e.g., Carrabine, 2005; Goldstone & Useem, 1999, Sparks et al., 1996; Sykes, 1958/2007; Useem & Piehl 2006). They largely found that within the routinized reality that the institution seeks to project, it is the interplay of structural factors with the agency of particular (groups of) prison officers and prisoners that appear to determine the buildup, course, and aftermath of a prison riot. As such, riots are strongly informed by relational, situational, and contextual dynamics. This means that they are embedded in localized prison cultures and politics, just as other forms of violence that may permeate prison life (e.g., Darke & Garces, 2017; Goldstone & Useem, 1999; Macaulay, 2013; Martin, Jefferson, & Bandyopadhyay, 2014; Piacentini & Slade, 2015; Symkovych, 2019; Ungar, 2003). Taking an approach that places riots within the broader political economy of violence in Nicar- aguan prisons, I reconstruct two riots that took place in 2009 and 2015 at two distinct Nicaraguan prison facilities—one regional penitentiary and one city police jail (CPJ)—drawing on prisoners’ firsthand accounts. While structural institutional poverty and the “violent attitudes” of prisoners are often presented by Nicaraguan prison authorities and press alike as the key motive for the occurrence of prison riots, prisoners themselves paint a much more complex picture. The arguments that they present indicate that riots appear not (only) due to material conditions, which are almost constant, but also due to tensions that the co-governance arrangements in place produce between powerful prisoners, authorities, and the colectivo (prisoner collective). These arrangements inform the dynamics of the prisons’ illegal markets, internal power hierarchies, and the (political) use of violence by both authorities and prisoners. Public explanations, however, conveniently draw the attention away from the underlying issues pertaining to this de facto sharing of power. Following a theoretical introduction and short presentation of my research methodology, I discuss the two cases. In both cases, the (structurally) poor conditions of imprisonment arguably served to galvanize mass participation in the riots, yet prisoners emphasized the role of the struggle over “quie´n manda” (who is in charge) and the use of riots as a form of “creative violence” as they served to make visible issues that usually remain invisible to the public eye (Goldstein & Castro, 2006). The latter appears to be geared particularly at (partially) relieving the prison system’s imposed regime of “public secrecy” (Taussig, 1999), so that a rearrangement of power could be negotiated, taking advantage—at least in part—of the system’s fear of “negative visibility” (Symkovych, 2018). While prison riots then tend to come to a negotiated end before the veil is publicly lifted, one needs but tug a little harder to find that what this entanglement seeks to hide is Nicaragua’s hybrid carceral state. 1

Violence, Prison Riots, and Prison Governance

In his classic work The Society of Captives (1958/2007), sociologist Gresham Sykes provided an analysis of the 1953 Jersey State prison riot that went against the usual rendering of prison riots as sudden and random outbursts—an issue that many prison scholars have taken up since, replacing Sykes’ functionalism, however, with other epistemic stances (Carrabine, 2005; Goldstone & Useem, 1999; Sparks et al., 1996; Sykes, 1958/2007; Useem & Piehl, 2006). Nonetheless, his functionalist understanding of prison life does point to the role that riots can arguably play in what he terms “a pattern of repeated social change” (Sykes, 1958/2007, p. 110). He bases this observation on his in-depth exploration of the “semiofficial prisoner self-government” in place in the Jersey State penitentiary at the time—a context that forced authorities and prisoners to engage in “balancing acts,” so that a livable “equilibrium” could be maintained in which a basic level of mutual security was ensured (p. 128). I believe it is fruitful to hold on to some of his more localized and contextual findings about prisoner government (particularly the sharing of power through balancing acts), as


these might help us grasp part of the how and why of Nicaraguan prison riots. Particularly, his consideration that riots do not entail the absolute breakdown of existing relations, but rather the (thorough) contestation of such relations by at least two powerful contenders struggling to (re)ne- gotiate the terms of their power balance, empirically holds sway in the Nicaraguan case. This does not mean that prisons go “back to normal” after a riot nor that this “normal” is by definition peaceful or stable. Instead, riots produce a “new normal” in the form of a rearticulated governance arrange- ment that is often neither foreseen by the prisoners nor by the authorities, but the result of their interplay during and in the aftermath of the riot. Approaching prison riots from a “state-centered” perspective, Goldstone and Useem in turn draw important parallels between the study of revolutions and state vulnerability on the one hand (e.g., Skocpol, 1994; Tilly, 1993) and the study of prison riots and prison management on the other (Goldstone & Useem, 1999). Approaching prison riots as “microrevolutions,” they redress Gold- stone’s extension of Skocpol’s conditions for “revolutionary situations” (Goldstone, 1991, about Skocpol, 1979) to fit the prison panorama. In this way, they argue that prison riots are most prone to occur when at least three of the following five conditions are present: (1) an imbalance between the “prison administration’s resources and capacities, and its administrative burdens,” (2) internal conflict among the authorities, (3) grievances among the prisoners about the actions or inaction of corresponding authorities to ameliorate material conditions, or about “ineffective or unjust” administration, (4) the “spread of ideologies of protest or rebellion” which need not be political but “indicate that [these] grievances and a desire for change are widely shared,” and (5) that the first actions taken by the authorities “in response to expressions of grievances” are seen to be “excessive, arbitrary, unjust, ineffective, or precluding peaceful reform” (Goldstone & Useem, 1999, pp. 1002– 1003). While this perspective similarly allows us to consider riots not as random incidents, but as strongly embedded in ongoing temporal, local, and relational processes, I would add that in situa- tions of (semiofficial) prisoner government (such as Nicaragua’s de facto co-governance model), these conditions must be read not only in relation to the legal prison authorities but also to the prisoner hierarchy. That is, in relation to all power holders in prison. Given the importance of relational processes for the understanding of prison riots, then, it is important to understand the logics of co-governance, too (Carter, 2017; Weegels, 2018b, 2018c). In Nicaragua, co-governance relations and arrangements both formally and informally include prisoners in the day-to-day governance of the prison system, while they also include authorities in the day-to-day operation of prisoner-dominated illicit markets. This means that in Nicaraguan prisons, co-governance is organized between two forces (powerful prisoners and authorities), who both have the means and desire to instrumentalize others (prisoners and authorities) to ensure their control over each other, while they also have the possibility to disorganize the existing arrangement. Prisoner–authority cooperation is legally arranged through consejos de internos (prisoner councils), which involve particular prisoners in the monitoring of other prisoners’ behavior inside their cells, and of their participation in prison activities. In a way, these councils are the authorities’ eyes and ears on the ground. At the same time, however, “regular” prisoners most usually position themselves normatively against the authorities and often consider the prisoner councils to be “sapos” (snitches). Notably, many prisoners participate in, and a segment of the prisoner population runs, a significant shadow economy in which anything from telephone minutes to marijuana and crack cocaine is marketed (see also Weegels, 2017). In order to keep this economy going, however, they at least in part depend on the corruption of (or relations of collusion with) prison authorities. In prison, economic prosperity is power, and the prisoners in charge of the illicit markets are often the leaders of their prison cells and cellblocks. Formal authority–council relations of cooperation barely disturb the power of such internal prisoner hierarchies, who in turn collude with authorities on the extralegal plane over the management of this shadow economy. While co-governance arrange- ments then often complement instances or dynamics of self-governance or self-rule, an issue that has


received much recent scholarly attention in Latin America (e.g., Antillano, 2017; Biondi, 2016; Carter, 2017; Darke, 2014; Darke & Garces, 2017; Macaulay, 2013; Pe´rez Guadalupe, 1994), the Nicaraguan case points to an interdependence that is not only contingent on a balance of forces but also on the mutual keeping of public secrets—that is, of secrets that are in fact “shared and known but unspoken” (Taussig, 1999, p. 50). 2 Clearly, this produces tensions among those interested in the maintenance or rupture of this general culture of institutional(ized) public secrecy, which are often expressed in the (extralegal) use of violence (e.g., Penglase, 2014). On their part, the authorities tend to justify their use of violence against prisoners not only by way of their monopoly over (the legal means to use) force but also by bringing their presupposed moral authority into play. This moral authority hinges on the reeducational system that is formally in place in the Nicaraguan prison system since its birth under the Sandinista Revolution (Centeno Mayorga, 2012; Ley del Re´gimen Penitenciario No. 473, 2003). By way of “penal reeducation,” this system envisions that prisoners move through five regime phases (from disciplinary/closed to semi-open and “family life”) that prepare them for their return to society. Prisoners, then, are granted privileges depending on their compliance with or punishments for their resistance to the system. These will either speed up or hold back their progress through the regimes. Given that this privilege system is projected as the official prison order, it is not difficult to imagine that it is (at least to a certain extent) impacted by the abovementioned co-governance arrangements, producing multiple irregularities (arbitrariness and corruption) concerning the assignment of privileges and punishment. Due to this double face, prisoners tend to question the system’s moral authority and legitimize their own search for a “fair” prison order, present in the rules and regulations concerning prisoner-dominated spaces. Pointing both to these extralegal entanglements and considering authority abuse of force (“the judge convicted us to serve a sentence, not to be beaten up”; Bobby, former La Modelo, 2015, interview), many prisoners hold that prison authorities simply “want to block the sun with a finger” (tapar el sol con un dedo; Marlon, CPJ, 2015), that is, attempt to keep this whole hybrid system of power hidden under the scant “finger” of penal reeducation. Prisoners’ arguments, however, are continuously countered by a strong effort on part of the government to project the police and prison system as the “best of Central America”—particularly, as the guardians of Nicaragua’s “exceptional” security (Polic´ıa Nacional, 2011), an issue that is often readily picked up in regional scholarly work on policing (e.g., Savenije, 2010; Schrader, 2017). 3 This discourse of “exception,” however, is directly related to the way in which these institutions have historically figured in the Sandinista’s “revolutionary” state-building project and is pivotal to the practices of the current Sandinista government (2007–date). Importantly, however, the ability of policing and prison institutions to project themselves as lawful while simultaneously engaging in extralegal governance strategies is key to understanding the cultivation of public secrecy so that these extralegal entanglements remain unquestioned (Guevara, 2014; Weegels, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c). Related to this is the fact that national human rights organizations have been banned from accessing prison since 2008, and journalists have suffered a similar fate. Prison riots are then not only (violent) attempts at rearranging the premises of co-governance arrangements, they also present a threat to the hybrid system of state power at large as they hinge on its potential exposure. Key to this dynamic is that riots, as extraordinary events that entail the authorities’ temporary loss of control over the prison or sections of it, will unequivocally reach the public eye. In this way, the riot can be taken advantage of to uncover what usually remains (literally) hidden behind its walls. As such, they can be considered a form of “creative violence” (Goldstein & Castro, 2006) aimed at making visible a situation of domination by a population that has been qualified (by law and by extension by society) as a “violent people”:

[F]rom an elitist perspective ‘violent people’ are those incapable of living according to established social norms, as demonstrated by their propensity to lash out violently and in contradiction of state law, basic


cultural codes of decency, or universal conceptions of shared humanity. [

understood as positive, in the Foucauldian sense of a force that produces, motivates, incites [

Through violence, people find expression, calling attention to situations and relationships that have previously been obscured or carefully made invisible to the public eye, or unthinkable in the public

] But violence can also be


imagination. (p. 381)

The violently creative potential of riots, aside from their political thrust (understanding political here in the broad sense of the word), means that they are expressions of disorder that are generally directly repressed. Such repression includes the suppression of alternative narratives to the official one and also hinges on the authorities’ fear of negative visibility (Symkovych, 2018). That is, prison authorities actively avoid their exposure and being held to account by the public. After all, given the pivotal role that police and prison institutions play in the execution and imaginary of the “revolutionary” state-building project in Nicaragua, their negative portrayal could contaminate the entire project. 4 Public explanations thus usually consist of after-the-fact reassurances on the part of the authorities to the wider public that they were knowledgeable of the motives for the riot, applied a justifiable amount of repression, resolved prisoner grievances by way of a rapid negotiation, and are “back in control,” discrediting any alternative claims made by prisoners during the riot. On the ground, however, the rioting colectivo seeks to invoke the authorities’ fear of negative visibility (especially by way of contacting the press through their cell phones), to negotiate an end to the riot that resolves as many of their demands as possible. Yet the period after this negotiation is where most riots “backfire” on prisoners: Authorities largely retain the upper hand (both in managing the public narrative and by using force), and even if they might concede (part of the) prisoners’ demands they do so with an eye on restoring “order” (i.e., public secrecy). In this way, Nicaraguan prison riots tend to rearticulate existing co-governance arrangements to the advantage of either authorities or powerful prisoners and largely leave the grievances of the colectivo unattended.

Researching Prison Riots in Nicaragua

Between 2009 and 2016, I conducted 31 months of ethnographic field research with convicted prisoners and former “convicts” (whom I refer to as former prisoners) of three different prison facilities. Trained as an anthropologist and initially interested in the gendered dynamics of violence and “change of attitude” inside prison, I accessed the prison world by way of a prison theater initiative that I and my husband, a Nicaraguan theatre director, set up. In this way, I worked with a group of long-sentenced men at a regional penitentiary (SPR) between 2009 and 2013 5 and with a group of short-sentenced prisoners of a City Police Jail (CPJ) at a police-run community center between 2015 and the start of 2016. 6 Conducting my ethnographic research through this theater program at the SPR, the CPJ, and the community center, I was perceived by prisoners and authorities both as a “prison insider” (a long-term workshop facilitator and/or researcher) and a “prison out- sider” (noninmate, nonstaff, a woman, and a foreign national; see also Hammersley, 2015; Young, 2004). 7 As is characteristic of ethnographic research, while present at these different facilities, I “systematically and impressionistically” recorded “human cultural life in situ”—including “observing and/or interacting with people as they go about their everyday lives, routines and practices,” and also becoming part of these everyday lives, routines, and practices (Drake, Earle, & Sloan, 2015, p. 3). Over the course of time, I conducted several hundreds of hours of observations and (participatory) interaction, engaged in informal (group) conversation, and simply “hung out.” I also followed up with prisoners and former on particular issues that I observed, both in the full group contexts and with individual group members (in prison as well as after their release). Between2014 and 2015, when I was no longer able to access the SPR due to a (repeated) authorization request that went unanswered by the Ministry of Government, I followed up with released prisoners and


conducted semistructured interviews with about a dozen former prisoners from the capital city penitentiary of La Modelo. 8 After the start of our work at the CPJ in 2015 (for which we needed an “attestation of political sympathy” from the local Sandinista party secretariat rather than an authorization—an issue that speaks to the increasingly partisan workings of Nicaraguan state insti- tutions over the years and that functioned as a de facto guarantee of silence), I also organized and participated in activities with “at-risk” youth, social workers, and police at all three cities, organized a former prisoner radio show, and kept in touch with a number of both the long- and short-sentenced prisoners, conducting follow-up interviews and discussing with them my research findings. Important to note in this sense is the “interrelational continuity” that the ethnographic research process hinges on, or as Drake, Earle, and Sloan (2015) note: “ethnography does not emerge as a singular, fully formed product, but rather manifests in a variety of forms over the lifetime of the research” (p. 3). This is to say that the ethnographic method is rarely aimed at verifying preexisting hypotheses that are foreseen by a singular research design but rather is aimed at responding to issues as these arise in the field, presenting themselves through observation and interaction, thus consti- tuting a bottom-up rather than a top-down research practice. It was in this way that, over the course of time that I engaged with the prisoners of the CPJ at the police-run community center, I began noticing parallels between the lived experiences of imprisonment at the CPJ and SPR that begged to be understood in relation rather than opposition to one another. 9 These parallels reached beyond site-specific conditions and authorities (police lockup or penitentiary, National Police or National Penitentiary System-run) and arose instead from prisoner descriptions of and experiences with “el Sistema”—the way in which they colloquially referred to the prison system as a whole, including its extralegal components. Through their accounts of the workings of this Sistema, the prisoners’ narratives pointed to a prevalent “prison climate” (Martin et al., 2014) that reached both above and beyond both sites, meaning that—though distinct in many ways—they were embedded in a similar political, institutional, and social context. The overlap between police jails and penitentiaries is also practical: resulting from the near 3-fold growth of the prison population in under 10 years, from 5,610 prisoners in 2007 to 13,007 prisoners in 2016, 10 the overcrowding of the penitentiaries means that many prisoners sit out (part of) their sentences police jails such as the CPJ. It is in this vein that I consider the prison riots of the SPR and CPJ in relation rather than in opposition to one another. This article focuses on two riots, one in 2009 and one in 2015, both of which involved significant violence without coming to a deadly clash. For the 2009 riot at the regional penitentiary (SPR), I rely on a detailed account from former prisoner Javi, which I sought to corroborate with newspaper reports and my research at the facility. At the time, the SPR held about 700 prisoners, just over its institutional capacity of 650, standing at the start of the period of Nicaragua’s carceral expansion (when I last visited the prison in 2013, it held just over 1,000 prisoners in unaltered facilities). Clearly, Javi’s account is partial, and many prisoners probably experienced the riot differently. Still his story points to a series of actors, dynamics, and arrangements that are important in understanding the way in which riots both stem from and are embedded in the wider political economy of violence in Nicaraguan prisons. 11 For the 2015 riot at the CPJ—the second in what would become a “wave” of three prison riots over the course of 2 years 12 —I draw on the extensive (group) conversations I had with my research participants almost directly after the riot. The CPJ, officially a pretrial facility, had an official holding capacity of about 120 prisoners and, while the prison was expanded with two cells, still held between 350 and 500 prisoners in the period that I visited it. Only about a quarter of these were pretrial detainees.

The Riots

Prisoner power and altered “mentalities” at the SPR.

Javi speaks with me from the other end of a WhatsApp connection at his newfound home in Spain. 13 His working days are long, but Javi is excited to talk. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



years, there were periods, which Javi attributed to particular prison wardens, when illicit markets were booming, but another riot has not occurred to date. The existence of a partially official system of co-governance through prisoner councils and the presence of long-sentenced meros with their respective followings might work toward a higher interest in the tranquility of the prison. We should not mistake this absence of riots, however, for an absence of violence or prisoner resistance. Both while I conducted research at the prison and when I followed up with research participants after their release, they spoke of fights between (groups of) prisoners, stabbings, occurrences of (sexual) abuse, the ousting of prisoner council members from cells, beatings of prisoners by authorities, the sewing shut of mouths in protest against maltreatment, and other forms of prisoner self-harm (both in protest and as a result of emotional distress, including attempted suicide). Still, when compared to the situation at the CPJ, the level of violence deployed by both prisoners and authorities, toward each other as well as among each other, seemed lower. The general situation at the CPJ appeared to be much more characterized by distrust and violence, not only between prisoners but also between prisoners and authorities (police rather than peniten- tiary officers in this case). At least in part, this was due to (much) more strained relations between police and prisoners, the extralegal situation of convicted prisoners at the CPJ, and the jail’s highly overcrowded conditions. While the police attempted to copy the official co-governance system by appointing a prisoner responsible for each cell, they also depended heavily on the command capacity of the gallada inside the cells. Prisoner turnover was higher, but the authorities also deployed higher levels of violence to ensure that prisoners (especially those who “acted up”) would remember who is “in charge.” Their extralegal dependence on the gallada for a (large) share of the internal order at least in part accounts for the authorities’ lack of intervention in the 2015 riot, which seemed to have largely evolved around the prisoner gallada enforcing its own rules, rather than the authorities imposing theirs. Still, due to a share of the rioters’ desire to ameliorate prison conditions, the authorities were also pushed to take the pressure off of the jail, which they readily used to draw the attention away from internal issues. These were in turn “resolved” by negotiating the fixing of the water system on the one hand and compiling early release lists on the other. In this sense, in the end, the colectivo reaped the benefits of the creative violence deployed by the rioters. In hindsight, the authorities may have taken the pressure off the jail not only to improve the “care” for the prison population but arguably also to find a way to reestablish their power over the prison. Over the next months, they followed up on the riot response with an attempt to disorganize the gallada’s power by cracking down on the internal drug trade. Slowly but steadily, they dried up all entry routes. The gallada’s reaction to this crackdown was funneled through the subsequent 2016 riot, which was largely directed at the police. When the general commissioner was injured as he entered the prison to negotiate (by a prisoner who threw a stone at his face), the police put their foot down. Rather than reestablishing the balance in favor of a more peaceful arrangement, they took the opportunity to authoritatively tip the balance in their favor. Aran˜a, a prisoner who was present at both riots, noted upon his reimprisonment in 2017 that as a result the authorities now deployed “more regimen” (i.e., force or “pressure,” as Javi called it). While the prisoners at the CPJ largely continue to govern one another in their overcrowded cells, the relation with the authorities remains characterized by tension, violence, and distrust. If we follow Goldstone and Useem’s (1999) con- ditions for a “revolutionary situation” (pp. 1002–1003), the possibility of another riot taking place persists. After all, there is/are still (1) an imbalance in the administration’s resources and capacities and its burdens, (2) internal conflict among the authorities, (3) grievances among the prisoners about the actions (or inaction) of the authorities, (4) ideologies of protest or rebellion such as the ley de la gallada, and (5) actions taken by the authorities in response to expressions of grievances that are perceived as excessive and unjust. Arguably, this situation has only been aggravated following the mass incarceration of protesters in the months following the 2018 anti-government protests.


While both of the riots discussed here arguably started out as “solo-operations” of high-ranking prisoners or prisoner groups (the gallada and the Managua meros), they depended on the partici- pation of a disgruntled “mass” (from the colectivo) in order for the riot itself to “work” and provide leverage to negotiate with. The prior organization of (part of the) prisoners, based on norms sur- rounding the shadow economy and dynamics of prisoner violence, gave powerful prisoners ample leeway to call on existing grievances, mobilize members of the colectivo, and even coerce others into participating in the riot. That is, existing self- and co-governance relations were deployed to (attempt to) effect institutional changes, breaking the established (violent) equilibrium to (attempt to) alter its terms (Sykes, 1958/2007). Despite the (generally) personal interests of riot instigators, then, the riots themselves tended to quickly evolve into events that (temporarily) disorganized the authorities’ control over the prison narrative and the legitimacy that they publicly enjoyed. Through the riots, prisoners sought to make visible different aspects of what public secrecy so vehemently tries to hide: the system’s structurally poor conditions, the authorities’ willingness to use violence, and the systemic fight for the improvement of their precarious position. Presenting themselves as “violent people,” the rioters subsequently produced a form of disorder that called sufficient attention to the socially and institutionally neglected position they were in, making of the riots instances of creative violence, yet simultaneously appeared to hinge on the state’s willingness to negotiate in order to achieve a new equilibrium. Exactly due to the riots’ threat to upset the imposed regime of public secrecy, the authorities were pushed to (partially) honor demands for better prison conditions, often in the direct negotiation and aftermath of a riot. Interestingly, another issue that points to the perceived necessity of riots for the on-the-spot negotiation of prisoner grievances or demands is that even though most of my research participants said not to have been actively involved in the riots, they refrained from delegitimizing the structural motives that (some) rioters fought for. Many of them, despite their personal losses during the riots, supported rioting as one of the few tools available to prisoners for upsetting authority power and bringing to light the situation inside the prison system. Authorities nonetheless actively discredited accounts that might point to the extralegal or unmerited use of force and the role of both this and their involvement in any (illicit) co-governance arrangements in the buildup to a riot. While discussions around overcrowding and structural human rights violations then tended to briefly follow upon the occurrence of a riot, they were usually short-lived as they were invariably met by the authorities’ powerful counternarrative. It must be recalled that in Nicaragua close to all televised press is in the hands of the government and its proxies and that prison-related issues hardly make it to the printed press, which tends to center more on political and economic debates (Huhn, Oettler, & Peetz, 2009; Weegels, 2018d). If made at all, reports of recommendations and violations would subsequently be shelved until the next “incident” would take place. One might wonder, however, if riots can still be termed incidents (even if they are sporadic) if they appear to be integral to the assertion and contestation of power in Nicaragua’s hybrid governance system.


In this article, I have sought to demonstrate the interplay of power hierarchies, violence, and the negotiation of (public) secrecy during and in the aftermath of prison riots in Nicaragua. While prison riots tend to come to a negotiated end before the veil is publicly lifted, what hides beneath is a hybrid carceral state that functions at the hand of a de facto co-governance system. Interestingly, a factor that points exactly to the fear of negative visibility that could ensue from a hardhanded response to prison riots is a positive one: The riots at the CPJ and the SPR left no one dead. The purposeful lack of deployment of lethal force to end prison riots in Nicaragua both attests to the investment of the authorities in public secrecy and contributes to the performative character of the riots (see Beetham, 2013, on the performative aspect of power and its legitimation). In this way, we might understand


riots as instances of negotiation of institutional change that hinge on a scripted performance of violence and power, which is embedded within the wider political economy of violence in Nicar- agua’s prison system. Interestingly, an issue that points to the performative nature of riots is that, despite the levels of violence deployed, prison riots in Nicaragua have not left anyone dead as of at least a decade. Instead, violent prison deaths tend to occur in confrontations between prisoners, when particular prisoners are targeted for particular, internal reasons (either to retaliate against a serious infraction on an illicit market or to settle scores between individual prisoners or prison gangs). 22 Even though various prisoners were beaten (or stabbed) during the riots described above, prisoners did not direct lethal force at the police or prison guards or vice versa. 23 We should not mistake riots for a revolution against a power system with the objective to take it down, then. Rather than permanently damaging or annihilating the other side, prison riots in Nicar- agua—at least before the 2018 protests—appear to be geared at pressuring the other side hard enough to make compromises and concessions as to the distribution of power in prison. Considering then that riots do not entail the absolute breakdown of existing relations, but rather the (thorough) contestation of such relations by at least two powerful contenders struggling to (re)negotiate the terms of their power balance, riots produce a “new normal” in the form of a rearticulated governance arrangement that is often neither foreseen by the prisoners nor by the authorities, but the result of their interplay during and in the aftermath of a riot. 24 Instead of collapsing the entire co-governance system, the co-governance arrangements in place thus appear to evolve along with these changing relations between both prisoners and guards and among prisoners. The particularities of prison riots across the world might then be better understood by when attuned to the particular relational, situational, and contextual dynamics that inform them. Understanding them not as incidents with entirely exceptional rules of engagement, but rather as complex events embedded in localized prison cultures and politics in the web of violence that permeates prison life.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/ or publication of this article.

Funding The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was partially funded by the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) Moving Matters research group, the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA), and a grant from the Catharine van Tussenbroek fund for female researchers.


1. This state has been largely unveiled by way of their own exorbitant repression of anti-government protests that began taking place after April 18, 2018. I have argued elsewhere (2018b) that the authorities’ deploy- ment of lethal force as well as its full institutional and para-institutional apparatus against the protesters has irreversibly undone over a decade’s worth of the government’s institutional and takeover reputation- building (an issue discussed at length in Collombon & Rodgers, 2018; Guevara, 2014; Walker & Wade, 2017; and relating to the police and prison system in Weegels, 2018a, 2018d).

2. Although Taussig’s argument for public secrecy is more philosophical and draws on anthropological and historical material, Cohen and Taylor (1978) have provided an excellent practical exploration of the “web” and “apparatus of secrecy” as pertains to prisons or state secrets, locating it “firmly in the centralised network of the state” (p. 2). All of Enzenberger’s (1976) three features of state secrecy they draw on (sense of irresponsibility, continual uncertainty, and infectiousness) are present in the way in which (public) secrecy works and is enforced in the Nicaraguan prison system.


3. For more critical accounts of Nicaraguan policing strategies and policies, see Rocha (2005, 2007), Rodgers (2006, 2009, 2016), and Weegels (2018a, 2018d)—all researched and written before the hardhanded repression of anti-government protests in 2018, which largely debunked the Nicaraguan police’s “friendly” reputation.

4. In effect, the widespread documentation of the police’s aggression against protesters in April 2018 made for their rapid delegitimation (see also Weegels, 2018b).

5. This group consisted of between 8 and 20 members, all of which were young men (mostly between 18 and 30 years old at the time), who were sentenced to between 6 and 30 years in prison (which is Nicaragua’s legal maximum sentence). Many of the group members participated in the theater initiative continuously, and small numbers of new participants joined over the years.

6. This group consisted of 13–15 members, all but two young men (also between 18 and 30 years old at the time, though on average younger than the group at the SPR), who were sentenced to between 2 and 5 years in prison.

7. Issues pertaining to access and immersion always intersect with ethnographic endeavors into prison (Drake et al., 2015; Rhodes, 2001). In my case, my access to the prisons and the spaces within them was different at each of these facilities and also changed over time. At all facilities, I was considered a voluntary arts facilitator by the authorities and both a facilitator and a researcher by the prisoners I worked with. My research was largely conducted in the absence of the authorities, and there was no electronic surveillance system at any of the facilities.

8. The reason that I do mention the name of this facility is that I never accessed it, which means authorities do not know who I had contact with on the inside, and it would arguably be very difficult for them to know with which of their thousands of former prisoners I may have spoken to.

9. Even though considering prisoner experiences of distinct prison sites in tandem is methodologically and analytically challenging, this type of comparison is arguably the strong suit of ethnographic research (Detienne, 2008; Handler, 2009; Lazar, 2012).

10. See Ministerio de Hacienda (2007 and 2014–2016); as well as the World Prison Population Lists, retrie- vable from http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/nicaragua. Nicaragua’s incarceration stood at 171 per 100,000 in 2015. The official capacity of the system was and most probably still is not more than 1,000 places over 4,742 (reported in 2010). XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


Author Biography

Julienne Weegels is a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for Latin American Research and Documenta- tion (CEDLA) at the University of Amsterdam. She has conducted extensive research inside and around Nicaragua’s prison system, working with prisoners and former prisoners. Her research focuses on the politics of power and (dis)order, examining (former) prisoners’ performances of violence and ‘change of attitude’, and their understandings of and experiences with policing, imprisonment and the state at large.