Maria-Fátima Santos’s research investigates the relationship between penal reforms and the state within a context in which the representation of a ‘legitimate’ democratic state is at stake. This project investigates an initiative that entirely reconstructed the carceral system of Espírito Santo, Brazil. In 2005, this state was described by federal government agencies and the media as the worst case of the problems for which most Brazilian state carceral systems are infamous—it was overcrowded, plagued by violence, systematic human rights violations, and gross deficiency in basic food, medical and social services. Just six years later (2011), the state’s carceral system was hailed by Brazil’s National Justice Council as the national reference for reform—it had closed its old dilapidated facilities and constructed new ones. The military police that previously managed them were replaced with trained correctional officers. Administrators and bureaucrats have adopted a new discourse that emphasizes inmate resocialization and invested in basic social services. How did this structural and discursive transformation occur? What are the institutional mechanisms and political dynamics that explain how these reforms developed? To address these questions, my research investigates changes in (1) the structure of the bureaucratic and political fields and (2) the position-takings of actors within them that influenced carceral reforms since the end of the military regime. This study is a component of a larger research agenda to analyze the historical, political and structural dynamics that explain variation in carceral reforms during a global resurgence of incarceration.