Post by Valerie King, MSc candidate in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

Review of Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement edited by Keramet Reiter and Alexa Koenig (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

In the contemporary landscape, the boundaries and limits of criminal punishment are not so clear. Immigrants, ‘risky’ offenders, and suspected terrorists present challenges for civil and administrative powers. In these contexts, and beyond, civil and administrative functions increasingly intersect with punitive powers. This raises a number of theoretical and empirical questions for scholars and activists. To what extent and in which capacities do penal and administrative powers converge? How do these boundaries manifest through practitioner and prisoner experiences? What are the themes and contradictions that characterize these spaces? And, amongst others, what is the role of scholars and activists to confront these convergences? 

Extreme Punishment offers insight into the ‘administrative black holes that increasingly characterize punishment in these modern democracies’ (p. 2). Editors Keramet Reiter and Alexa Koenig bring together research that explores and challenges the boundaries of punishment. In their introduction, the editors present two conceptual frameworks that diffuse throughout the volume: crimmigration and risk management (p. 3)―familiar concepts for followers of Border Criminologies. Each of the eleven chapters provides insight into the ‘producing of criminals through civil, preventive laws’ (p. 5). The editors identify three processes by which this occurs: (1) the law categorizes people in terms of exclusion, (2) punishment looks increasingly administrative, and (3) identities are affected by these administrative practices. The eleven chapters take as their focus institutions ranging from prison architecture, immigration control, solitary confinement, and Guantanamo Bay to show ‘how preventive administrative measures have become more “extreme”’ (p. 6).

Yvonne Jewkes begins the volume with a thoughtful chapter on prison architecture, calling attention to its centrality to the experience of being in prison. The design and environment of prisons in the UK and US exaggerate the pain and fear within high security prisons, characterizing the lived experience of prisoners. Jewkes contends that within these contexts, we have returned to expressive and barbaric forms of punishment, cyclically producing criminals, as portrayed by Dante’s Inferno. This chapter invites the reader to consider the ‘pain and harms inflicted by incarceration’ (p. 28) and sets the stage for a critical approach to understanding the lived experience of confinement.

There are several chapters that will stand out for those who follow Border Criminologies.  Emma Kaufman and Sam Weiss ‘assert that incarceration—whether in a detention center, a prison, or any facility in between—is punishment for the people subject to it’ (p. 33). By focusing on non-citizens convicted of criminal offenses, Chapter 2 challenges the legal distinction between criminal and civil procedures. The authors draw from ethnographic fieldwork to conclude that the law presents possibilities for creating ‘the affective dimension of punishment (p. 33). In Chapter 3, Mary Bosworth and Sarah Turnbull look at British immigration removal centres (IRCs) to critically examine administrative and punitive confinement. The authors contend that IRCs are in many ways different from prison, and yet they ‘reveal a troubling extension of the reach of penal power’ (p. 51). This power is racialized, gendered, and exclusionary. In this way, the state places boundaries around national identity, determining who belongs and who doesn’t through the processes of border control.  

Mona Lynch’s chapter describes the legal extremism made possible through the localization and expansion of immigration enforcement powers in Maricopa County, Arizona. She outlines the developments that have propelled an extraordinary application of local immigration control under Federal Immigration Law 287(g), resulting in a war on immigrants, excessive detention, and degrading treatment for undocumented detainees.  Lynch then cautions that the expansion of local powers is, once released, difficult to contain. In Chapter 10, Efrat Arbel describes the transformation of the Canadian border ‘from a site of hospitality and rights protection for refugee claimants… to a site of restriction, exclusion, and punishment’ (p. 213), thus removing legal protections and rendering claimants susceptible to punishment. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 10 provide insights into the punitive and exclusionary aspects of immigration control, of which we are all too familiar.

The remaining contributions extend the analysis broadly to issues of mental illness, solitary confinement, and identity. Chapter 6, for instance, reflects upon mental health care in Canadian correctional facilities and specifically on the use of seclusion for purposes of behavior modification. Stuart J. Murray and Dave Holmes argue that this treatment is extreme and is experienced and ‘embodied subjectively’ (p. 118). Similarly, Kelly Hannah-Moffat and Amy Klassen document the extent to which solitary confinement as a management practice has become normalized. This is especially problematic for prisoners with mental health issues, who are cyclically constructed as risky individuals and receive diminishing entitlements to care. Chapter 9 also addresses mental health and solitary confinement in the US, documenting ‘the punitive experience’ of isolation. For mentally ill individuals, solitary confinement because of its drastic effects on mental health, perpetuates the use of solitary confinement for managing these individuals, thus highlighting the extreme intersections between punishment and care.

In Chapter 11, Alexa Koenig conceptualizes Guantanamo Bay as a place for social death. Interviews with prior detainees describe that loss of social identity and meaning intensified their experience as punitive, themes that are worsened by adding indefinite time. Alison Liebling’s chapter similarly documents how ideologies of risk and danger in high-security prisons have led to the erosion of humanity (p. 92). In England and Wales, she explains, there is ‘a new crisis of trust and recognition’ (p. 91). Liebling optimistically concludes that there are promising moments of humanity, even within degrading conditions. Lastly, Chapter 8 focuses on non-deliberative acts of former supermax prisoners and the potential that these acts have for enabling social movements and activism. These chapters in particular, alongside the afterword, draw our attention to the affective: ‘What is “extreme” about these structures is the extent to which they mold the people who are subjected to them’ (p. 243).In doing so, the authors present glimpses of hope, humanity, possibility, and change. Where will we define the extremes of punishment? 

The authors in the anthology contribute from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, generating nuanced approaches and revealing common themes. The book is best for scholars in law and social sciences, as well as criminal justice practitioners, policy makers, and advocates who are interested in the limits of the law, the transformation of punishment, and the lived experiences of people subjected to them. The volume may be read selectively or as a collection: each chapter provides a useful case study on its own, but the continuity throughout is strengthened in its totality. Extreme Punishment is important because it draws our attention to exceptional developments in contemporary punishment. As Reiter and Koenig argue: ‘New administrative laws, nominally focused on managing risk and preventing harm, ultimately produce both new criminal categories and newly criminalized individuals, despite purporting to operate outside the criminal legal framework’ (p. 4). The anthology contributes to knowledge about the expansion of punishment and its effects. For instance, it’s necessary to consider how it’s ‘not only the quality, or content, of this punishment that matters—it is its endlessness’ (p. 244). As scholars, activists, and policy-makers, perhaps the next step is to decide what we ought to be doing about it.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

King, V. (2016) Book Review: Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement. Available at: (Accessed [date]).