Andrew Johnson on Pentecostals in Prison in Brazil
Date: February 14th, 2016

How does religion shape and affect the lives of prisoners and other marginalized people in Brazil?  Dr. Andrew Johnson, a research associate with the Center for Religion and Civil Culture at the University of Southern California, visits with us and details his amazing study of Pentecostalism in Brazilian prisons, a study that actually had him living as an “inmate” in a Rio de Janeiro prison for several weeks.  This study not only became the basis for his dissertation and subsequent publications, but is also part of a documentary film designed to take scholarship to a broader audience.

After a wee bit of banter about Super Bowl 50 and Andrew’s woes about the Minnesota Vikings, Prof. Johnson discusses how he came to study the role of religion in prisons.  He recounts his time as a basketball coach for inner city youth and how some of the kids he knew ended up in the penal system.  We then spend some time going over the religious landscape of Brazil, his primary country of study.  Although the largest Catholic nation on Earth, Brazil has witnessed a significant increase in Protestantism in recent decades with a majority of those Protestants being of the Pentecostal faith.  Andrew documents how Pentecostalism is a very appealing faith to individuals within the poor, marginalized neighborhoods of Brazilian cities known as favelas.  These are also areas where criminal gangs run the neighborhoods, but interestingly these gangs have a very symbiotic relationship with the Pentecostal churches.  It is this interesting relationship that then translates into prison, which is often a concentrated microcosm of life within the favelas.

We then spend a significant amount of time discussing Dr. Johnson’s dissertation project as it represents one of the more intense forms of immersive fieldwork that you would see scholars doing.  Andrew actually spent several weeks living within a prison in Rio de Janeiro to develop a greater sense of what the world of prisoners was like.  We cover the various difficulties in getting this type of study off the ground, as well as Andrew’s own reflections going into, living within, and then coming out of this very dangerous and difficult environment.  Brazilian prisons are very different from those found in the United States, and Dr. Johnson talks about the crowded conditions and how prison guards have little to do with the prisoners in the cell blocks, which means prisoners are creating their own societies within this environment.

Our conversation then turns to how religious faith and organization plays out in prison.  We start this conversation with a story about a pastor who was well known for helping to mediate prison riots.  Andrew notes that the police and SWAT teams in Brazil are frequently brutal in putting down such riots, often killing dozens or hundreds of prisoners, and how the inmates often see Pentecostal ministers as being a trusted source to bring about negotiated settlements.  The government also finds these religious pastors helpful for helping to calm situations down.  This leads us to a further discussion of how religion functions within the prison walls, with Andrew pointing out that it is not just visiting pastors and religious volunteers that bring religious services into the jail, but rather it is the prisoners themselves who often establish and run their own ministries.  We talk about different roles played out by the inmates, including the position of secretary of the prison church — a person who records the visitors, attendees, and controls the finances.  Many of these churches have distinct clothing made for them and purchase musical instruments for worship services.  Andrew stresses the role of “authenticity” with respect to these churches.  Whereas members of these Pentecostal churches are often a protected group with the prison environment, it must be shown that the members who join are really “living the life” or “walking the talk.”  Whereas Dr. Johnson is not in a position to evaluate the true depth of belief of any individual, he does note how this plays out in a broader social context.

We finish the conversation with some observations about Andrew’s use of documentary filmmaking to bring his research to a broader audience.  He talks about the process of doing the film and how it creates a different view of his work amongst different audiences.  He also shares with us a number of the surprises he found throughout the process of conducting this research.  He notes the importance of human dignity and the role that religion plays even amongst the most violent of individuals in society.  Recorded: February 7, 2016.



Andrew Johnson’s bio at the Center for Religion & Civil Culture (USC).

If I Give My Soul, trailer for the documentary film by Andrew Johnson & Ryan Patch.

Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present, edited by Alexander Wilde.

Storytellers, Inc., film company run by Ryan Patch (mentioned in podcast).


Jeff Henig on Prison Ministry.

Byron Johnson on More God, Less Crime.

Byron Johnson on Religion and Delinquency.

Owen Strachan on Chuck Colson.

William Wubbenhorst on SERVE, West Dallas.

8 Responses to “Andrew Johnson on Pentecostals in Prison in Brazil”

  1. Martin Mittelstadt says:

    Thanks for an excellent story. I followed the link to the documentary and I found no place to purchase the film. Will it be available for purchase. On the one hand, it appears to have already received an award at an African film festival, yet the current trailer still states “coming soon.” I would love to see the doc. Thanks again.

    • tonygill says:

      Thanks for the query. There are some distributional copyrights with posting the film on line that Andrew Johnson informed me of. If you click the link to his biography on our website, you can contact him directly and he can fill you in with more details as to how to get the film.


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  4. […] housed in separate prison wings that stand out for their order and cleanliness. Some have even established their own ministries inside […]

  5. […] housed in separate prison wings that stand out for their order and cleanliness. Some have even established their own ministries inside […]

  6. […] housed in separate prison wings that stand out for their order and cleanliness. Some have even established their own ministries inside […]

  7. […] housed in separate prison wings that stand out for their order and cleanliness. Some have even established their own ministries inside […]

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