Speaking Justice to Power

Confinement, Cauterization, and Antipolitics in the Americas

Editorial Introduction, Incarceration and Transformation

By Jennifer Curtis and Randi Irwin

This Speaking Justice to Power installment focuses on the Americas, North and South, to foreground the divergent historical roots of the region’s new authoritarianism, now being enacted through confinement practices in numerous states. A multi-part PoLAR conversation with Karina Biondi (APLA Book Prize winner 2017), Catherine Besteman (President Emeritus, APLA) and Orisanmi Burton, complements this Speaking Justice installment’s focus on authoritarian practices of confinement and cauterization.

Code Pink Silent Protest” by Steve Rhodes. CC by 2.0. Image cropped for use on this websites homepage.

As states in both North and South America expand authoritarian practices of confinement, citizens balance responding to immediate crises, such as the Trump administration’s family separation policy for immigrants and asylum seekers, and resisting the way confinement practices constrain and confine dissent over time, far beyond ostensible, immediate targets. Empathy is one force for mobilizing dissent and protest, from the abolitionist campaigns against family separation in the 19th century to contemporary protests against carceral policies. Protests against detention and confinement practices are essential to withstanding creeping authoritarianism, often catalyzed by empathy. Understandably, when children are in cages and their relatives are undocumented, they cannot very well advocate for themselves. In the U.S., more than 13,000 migrant children are being detained as of October 2018—a fivefold increase in one year, not due to any increase in child entries—and hundreds of migrant children in custody are being transported from across the U.S. to a Texan tent city. But over time, confinement practices sever connections just as much as they establish categories of Others, desensitizing possible allies, and even disabling dissent.

William Paul Simmons (2011) describes such practices as a process of legal and social cauterization, which marginalizes Others, “branded as beneath humanity, below those that deserve rights… Then, those that are deemed inferior or rightless are sealed off from the polis or the courtroom…Finally, those with rights, the full members of the polis, deaden their feelings toward the suffering of those who are branded as rightless” (10). The disciplining logics of confinement not only act upon the individuals whom they isolate. They also work to continuously establish categories of who is and is not worthy of liberation. When authoritarian regimes practice confinement tactics—against dissenters, immigrants, entire classes of people defined as criminal or subversive—they also attempt to steer “good” subjects into scarred numbness and immobility.

Within the broader body politic, confinement severs connections (family, community, nation, etc.) and then cauterizes those wounds. Beyond direct, immediate injuries to individuals and groups, confinement and cauterization can weaken the people’s capacity for dissent and opposition, confining the people’s ability to practice politics itself. The three essays here focus on transformative dimensions of authoritarian confinement. Lindsey Raisa Feldman ethnographically explores the capacity of captives to transform  themselves through a prison wildfire program, directing our attention not just to confinement’s disciplining production of subjects, but also to possibilities for new political subjectivities and solidarities. Julienne Weegels considers the Sandinista movement’s transformation into an authoritarian regime, and its consequences for political dissent. Sara R. Munhoz considers how juvenile justice reforms in Brazil transform “freedom” into discipline—discipline that functions much like incarceration in disguise.


Simmons, William Paul. 2011. Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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