Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War by Naomi A. Paik

Paik, Naomi A. 2016.Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 332 pages. $26.23.

Paik, Naomi A. 2016.Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 332 pages. $26.23.

In a neo-liberal era plagued by discourse on rights, who are those that are deemed rightless and what are the political intersections that produce rightlessness? Naomi Paik introduces the concept of rightlessness through a letter from a Guantanamo detainee in which he defines his surroundings as a place where “you don’t have the right to have rights” (1). In Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War, Paik investigates three distinct, but not isolated, sites of U.S. incarceration: Japanese Americans incarcerated during the Second World War, HIV-positive Haitian refugees detained in Guantanamo during the 90s, and Guantanamo’s enemy combatants from the War on Terror. Through an investigation of each of these U.S. carceral spaces and personal testimonies, Paik argues that the rise of rights as a privileged political discourse, the rise of the United States as the world’s most dominant superpower, and an expanding imprisonment regime have all produced a body of “rightless people” (3).

The author defines rightlessness as both a “theoretical vantage point and a lived experience” (3) . What is the role of rightlessness and how is this experience made possible? For Paik, the answer is to think about rightlessness through various points of departure. In one aspect, rightless subjects are produced by spaces that take away rights (i.e., denied due process, are subjected to mass incarceration), and are further made rightless by physical removal and isolation from communities into spaces such as the camp or the prison. Throughout the book, the author reveals how the removal of rights and physical isolation create rightless subjects within Japanese, Haitian or Arab populations. Rightlessness, then, requires a certain political community to advance the condition of rights by eliminating others, since, as Paik suggests, “the recognition of rights depends on the denigration of the rightless. Rightlessness is therefore necessary, and endemic, to rights” (4). The rightless themselves demonstrate that “we should not consider that vicious gap created by the camp absolute; rather than a rigid distinction, the space between the rightful and the rightless makes for a murky spectrum, a series of gradations that are sometimes obvious and sometimes almost impossible to recognize” (219).

The structure of the book is divided into three main sections each containing two chapters engaging with distinct carceral spaces. For each chapter, Paik historicizes the political conditions that led to the exclusion and incarceration of each population while at the same time conveys the importance of personal testimony to understand moments of resistance and agency. Throughout the book, the use of testimony becomes a political tactic to comprehend the narratives and lived experiences of those who are often rendered voiceless. Although testimony becomes a primary facet for understanding lived experiences of incarceration within each of these populations, Paik also turns to empirical sites of information such as trial hearings, press statements, or poems to understand the generative value and truth of narratives of marginalized groups. For Paik, rightlessness is not merely an experience of physical violence (i.e., capture, transport, surveillance, enforced boredom, interrogations, coerced medical treatment, and torture) and exclusion, but also an epistemological violence, given that “what they know does not matter” meaning that the subjects of Paik’s study exist in a rightless position that “renders the knowledge of its subjects unbelievable, or even worse, unthinkable” (Paik 3).

Part I of the book traces the lineage that led to the deportation of Japanese communities after the events of Pearl Harbor. What is most provocative about Paik’s analysis is her argument that Japanese communities facing deportation and exclusion became dependent on “the very state that committed the injustice of internment” (34) creating a violence of incorporation and what Dylan Rodriguez calls “the sanctity and quality of white life” (35). Personal testimony led to the “Civil Liberties Act” signed by President Reagan in 1980 and further provided redress for the communities impacted by the exclusion acts and camps. However, Paik contends that although this event appears to be a triumph, it is not a moment marked by historical and social justice. This argument is made clear when the author demonstrates how the discourse of this moment im history conceptualized deportations as an exceptional historical juncture, ultimately dismissing the racial imbrications of domination that fuel U.S. empire. Additionally, Paik returns to her argument concerning epistemological violence when she analyzes how the survivor’s narratives were structured to fulfill state recognition instead of expressing their lived experiences through a language of their own. The second chapter attempts to alleviate the tension of personal narrative and state recognition by considering alternate forms of expression that arise within the confines of carceral being. Paik offers a critical analysis of Rea Taijiri’s experimental documentary History and Memory: For Akiko and Tekeshige (1991) and argues that “making peace with the ghost of interment does not mean that the ghost has vanished” (81). Paik writes, “In tracing what remains of rightlessness, Taijiri has documented her desire to represent what ultimately exceeds representation, what remains impossible to represent” (81).

Part II focuses on the detention of Haitian refugees that migrated to the U.S. after the elected president of Haiti was overthrown in 1991. These refugee communities were eventually intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and were relocated in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and detained in a refugee camp. Over the course of a gruesome process that would determine whether refugees would be screened-in for asylum or screened-out for repatriation back to Haiti, a total of 297 Haitian refugees were ultimately denied entry to the U.S. due to having tested positive for HIV. The uncertainty of this process and the markings of being screened in or out create a theoretical framework that Paik identifies as a “carceral quarantine” (113), which denotes the ways in which “the state could neither force the refugees back to certain persecution in Haiti nor subject them to outright killing” (114). The author emphasizes that the facets of carceral quarantine are a direct product of several factors including: American domination; ableist fears around HIV; and anti-immigrant sentiment entangled with racial intolerance. Furthermore, the second chapter, in this section, reveals the lived experiences of Haitian detainees and how they chose to resist carceral confinement through collective acts of resistance and agency such as engaging in mass hunger strikes; relying on the language of human and political rights to form the Association des Refugies Politiques Haitiens (ARPH) to express their orders from inside and outside the space of confinement; ensuring their voices were heard through everyday acts, individual interactions, collective town hall meetings, and letters” (115).

The last section of the book centers on the incarceration of enemy combatants sent to Guantanamo after the period of the War of Terror and the events that followed 9/11. The deportations that this community experienced are understood through racialized forms of domination. Paik makes this argument evident through an analysis that reveals how the detainees were depicted as terrorist and threats to U.S. patriotism due to their affiliations with Muslim faith and how this practice is not just understood through frameworks of religiosity, but also from racial and xenophobic terror. The creation of the category “enemy combatant” speaks to the ways in which Guantanamo becomes framed as a “legal black hole” (155) in addition to be a site that expands American imperialist domination. In the carceral space of Guantanamo, the law itself becomes easily malleable and dictated by racialized forms of domination in which bodies that are detained are “suspended between life and death” (114). Because the state does not recognize the detainees as political actors, their words are not enough, so they are forced to engage in acts of protest such as hunger strikes that are met with further forces of power in which detainees are involuntary fed and the body itself becomes a site of political endeavor. This carceral quarantine is a space where living and dying are rights that the rightless do not have access marking Guantanamo as a site of necropolitics in the context of US global dominance.

Throughout the book, Paik demonstrates how rightlessness is produced and reproduced by interrogating how rightless subjects make sense of their lived realities through acts of agency and resistance that also shape how the rhetoric of rights manifests itself as a tool for U.S. domination. Although Paik is critical about the archive she engages with, the reading of personal testimonies as inherently demonstrating agency and resistance might benefit from a more complex understanding that considers the limitations of these categories. Automatic applications of agency and resistance restrict conceiving the complexities of carceral being given that these categories rely on fixed notions of freedom and liberation constricting what can be known about the machinations of power Guantanamo detainees encounter. What are alternate ways of thinking through moments of incarceration that trouble the political project of agency? Ultimately, the book is a useful and necessary tool for thinking about how discourse on rights is continuously unchallenged and marked by U.S. global dominance. Rightlessness is an indispensable text that must be used to understand how other populations are rendered rightless, particularly during this moment in time where discourse on rights is privileged political discourse entangled with the expansion of the imprisonment regime. Paik makes a provocative argument: we must be attuned to what the rightless are saying, “for they know what the future holds” (230).


Itzel Corona Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Her research interests focus on (im)migration, detention/incarceration, queer temporalities, and transnational productions of citizenship. Her work engages with Chicanx feminist thought, prison abolition studies, and religious studies.