Speaker: Francesca Cerbini, CRIA-Universidade do Minho

What happens when secular institutions experiencing crisis draw the interest of neo-Pentecostal religions (Algranti 2018)?

Based on my ethnographic research in a Portuguese women’s prison, I seek to answer to this question by analyzing current relations between this prison and a powerful Brazilian neo-Pentecostal group (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) in times of Covid-19 pandemic.

The collaboration between actors typically deemed incompatible from a secular stance created a window of altered condition and new opportunities for religious-securitarian discourses to flourish, contributing to essential aspects of institutional life and management. In this scenario, I argue that the influential Universal Church aims to establish a foothold in prison governance by capitalizing on the institution’s heightened challenges during the pandemic. Universal Church does not overtly challenge the secularism entrenched in the relationship between state and religion in Portugal. On the contrary, its approach promotes a gradual process of adaptation and penetration through humanitarian actions.


Francesca Cerbini has focused the majority of her research in Latin America, specifically investigating the penitentiary institution. Her research interests encompass medical anthropology, anthropology of food, and anthropology of violence in marginal contexts spanning South America, and Europe. Within the “Young Talent” program (CAPES and CNPq), she was research fellow at the Universidade Estadual do Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil. Currently, she is engaged in a long term ethnography exploring the interplay between religions and daily life in Portuguese prisons.

This event is part of the Social Penalities Across Boundaries Workshop Series which has been co-organised by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and UNL in Agentina.

Photo Credit: Estabelecimento Prisional de Santa Cruz do Bispo (feminino) S2 View on a single cell in the unit for mother and child, 2016 Peter M. Schulthess Digital photograph Personal archive of the photographer © prison.photography Peter M. Schulthess