Crossing Borders and Criminalizing Identity: The Disintegrated Subjects of Administrative Sanctions

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Crossing Borders and Criminalizing Identity: The
Disintegrated Subjects of Administrative Sanctions
Keramet Reiter Susan Bibler Coutin
This paper draws on in-depth, qualitative interviews that examine individual
experiences in two different legal contexts: deportation regimes and supermax
prisons. Through putting these contexts and experiences into dialogue, we iden-
tify common legal processes of punishment experiences across both contexts.
Specifically, the U.S. legal system re-labels immigrants (as deportable noncitizens)
and supermax prisoners (as dangerous gang offenders). This re-labeling begins a
process of othering, which ends in categorical exclusions for both immigrants
and supermax prisoners. As individuals experience this categorical exclusion,
they cross multiple borders and boundaries—often against their will—moving
from prison to detention center to other countries beyond the U.S. border, and
from isolation to prison to “free” society. In both cases, the state action that sub-
jects experience as punishment is civil and, therefore, nominally not punitive.
Ultimately, excluded individuals find themselves in a space of legal nonexistence.
By examining these common processes and experiences, we argue that a new
kind of subject is revealed: a disintegrating subject (as opposed to a juridical or
disciplinary subject) whose exclusion reinforces the power of the state.
“It is not crime that alienates an individual from society, but
that crime is itself due rather to the fact that one is in society
as an alien.” (Foucault 1977: 275–76)
Susan Coutin’s research was supported by funding from the Law and Social Sciences
Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) (grant number SES-0518011), as was
Keramet Reiter’s research (grant number SES-1061643). Any opinions, findings, and con-
clusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do
not necessarily reflect the views of NSF. Susan Coutin also thanks Luis Perdomo, Katie
Dingeman-Cerda, Tim Goddard, Danny Gascon, and the San Salvador offices of the Cen-
tral American Resource Center and Homies Unidos for research assistance, as well as all
who participated in interviews. Keramet Reiter thanks those who participated in inter-
views. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2015 Law and Society Associa-
tion annual meeting. The authors thank the LSA panel organizers, discussants, and
audience members for their comments, as well as the students in Keramet Reiter’s Fall
2015 Law and Society II seminar for their critical reading of an earlier draft, and the edi-
tors and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments.
Please direct all correspondence to Keramet Reiter, Department of Criminology, Law
& Society and School of Law, University of California, Irvine, 3373 Social Ecology II,
Irvine, CA 92697-7080; email:
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 3 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
As Foucault’s quote suggests, there are deep connections
between criminalization and being treated as an alien or nonciti-
zen: both are mechanisms through which individuals are
excluded from social membership and its benefits. Through anal-
ysis of interviews from two separate projects—one about long-
term solitary confinement and the other about deportations to El
Salvador—we argue that illegalization and criminalization pro-
duce a new form of legal subject, which is neither a juridical sub-
ject governed by law, nor a disciplinary subject “responsibilized”
by punishment (Foucault 1977; Rose et al. 2006). Instead, the
subject is disintegrated through the imposition of severe sanc-
tions—like solitary confinement and deportation—without access
to the legal protections traditionally accompanying punishment.
The two narratives juxtaposed below exemplify the legal produc-
tion of this increasingly prominent form of subjectivity.
In 2010, one of us—Keramet—met with Max at a bench out-
side of a Starbucks, 40 days after he had been released from prison.
who was 50 years old at the time of this interview, had spent
10 years in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, where he had
been in solitary confinement, or “the hole,” in the Security Housing
Unit (SHU), a supermax. He described his experience:
One of the guys that ... worked there [in the prison] ... He
goes, “They’re talking about moving you ... [to] the Hole.”
And I said, “For what?” And he goes, “I don’t know. So I see
the goon squad coming in.” So I just crashed through the
classification, and I walked in there, and I said ... “You know
what? You’re going to lock me up; you have to give me a
reason ...
I’ll never forget that day. I said, “Lord, if you’re for real,
man, I turn my life over to you completely.” ... And I went
straight to the SHU. I remember ... they go up on a bus,
and it took forever to get there ... I’m just looking at trees,
birds. And you see it’s a beautiful coast out there. Man, I’m
looking at it. I’m like—the big old pelicans and I’m trying to
get everything I can because I know that it’s over—that I
already have a life sentence. Then with another life sentence
in the Hole ... And I was trying to look at everything—the
waves, everything. Then finally, we get to Pelican Bay ... And
the best way I can describe the front of the entrance of the
SHU is it’s like—remember the old Star Wars movies? Hans
Solo’s ship—the big old glass vessel? It’s the first thing that
came into my mind right then and there....
All interviewees have been given pseudonyms.
568 Crossing Borders and Criminalizing Identity
When you’re sentenced to indeterminate SHU sentence,
you’re allowed to appear before the classification unit every
120 days ...There’s no touching. You can’t touch each other.
You spend 23 out of the 24 hours—you can spend all 24
hours if you want in there, but I used to go out to my little
yard for an hour to work out ... .
Two years earlier, the other of us—Susan—sat opposite Amil-
car in the offices of a non-governmental organization in San Sal-
vador, El Salvador. Amilcar, who was 24 years old at the time of
this interview, described how, even though he had been a lawful
permanent resident in the United States, he had been deported
to El Salvador:
In 2004, late 2003 or 2004, I caught myself a criminal case
... It was a DUI [driving under the influence], and when
they searched the vehicle, they found less than 30 grams of
marijuana in the car. That was just enough for them to
charge me. Even though it was a misdemeanor. I paid my
fines, I went to probation. One day, when I went to proba-
tion, there was a detainer out for me. A warrant, pretty
much. And that’s when the probation officer said, “We have a
federal warrant for you.” When I heard “Federal warrant,” I
said, “Why is the FBI trying to go after me? I haven’t done
anything.” And she told me, “No, it’s Immigration.” That’s
when they took me in. They considered it to be two crimes
of moral turpitude, equaling one aggravated felony... .
Then I stood it until a year after, which was July 3
. And
then ... the Immigration judge, he gave me the case, then it
went to appeals court, because the attorney general, she
appealed his ruling... I was called back later to go to court,
and then he [the judge] ordered me deported. He told me,
“Look, this is not what I want to do.” He knew what my
intentions were in the beginning. “And this is something that
has come from up above. And I just have to follow through.”
And that’s when he ordered me deported. On June 6,
2006... . When you got the deportation letter, “You’re inad-
missible to the United States at any time.” It’s not for five
years, it’s not for three years... .
And we landed here at the airport, and I was like, “Wow, this
is nice... .” And you start to get homesick. I miss where I
grew up. “Where’s this? Where’s that?” But little by little, you
get used to it. You don’t adapt, but you get used to it....I
guess I have no plans. Just to get married. This is just part
of my sentence. I’m just going it day by day. Just a little bit
more freedom. I guess I haven’t settled in yet, it hasn’t kicked
in. That I’m destined to be here for the rest of my life. I
Reiter & Coutin 569

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