Surveillance, Discipline, and the Ins and Outs of Prison for Overstayers and Undocumented Workers in Hong Kong

  • Nicole Constable


This essay reflects on the prison stories of three women migrant workers in Hong Kong. All three women initially entered Hong Kong as domestic workers, then overstayed their visas and worked illegally before surrendering to immigration and serving prison time. Their stories of life inside and outside of prison raise many questions, especially about the forms of power and control they encountered. Drawing from what Deleuze, building on Foucault, has provocatively characterized as “societies of discipline” and “societies of control” (1992), I show how both sorts of discipline and control (and punitive sovereign ones) coexist in migrant’s lives. Prison, as Foucault described, is characterized by carceral forms of discipline aimed at reforming individuals. Women’s experiences of prison, I argue, are colored by its conventional disciplinary form and function, including expectations of post-incarceration societal reincorporation. Life outside of prison, by contrast, is characterized by more fluid and diffuse assemblages, information technologies, and networks of control. The lives of overstayers before prison, can offer them freedom and temporary escape from networks of control, but also produce anxiety, fear, and exclusion. These women’s experiences thus point to limitations and provocative aspects of Foucault and Deleuze’s models, and to ways in which migratory lives are shaped and characterized by multiple types of control and discipline.


Download data is not yet available.


Agamben, Georgio 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Constable, Nicole 1997 (2007). Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

-----. 2014. Born out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dui Hua. 2014. “Bangkok Rules Gain Traction in Hong Kong’s Largest Women’s Prison.” Accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

HKASD (Hong Kong Architectural Services Department). 2011. “Green Building Award 2010.” accessed 10 March 2015.

HKCSD (Hong Kong Correctional Services Department and Architectural Services Department ). 2011. “Redevelopment of Lo Wu Correctional Institution” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

Huber, Andrea. 2014. “Why Don’t the Chat as they Work? A Visit to Lo Wu Correctional Institution.” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage Books.

Futurearc. 2011. “Projects.” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

Lee, Maggy. 2007. “Women’s Imprisonment as a Mechanism of Migration Control in Hong Kong.” British Journal of Criminology 47: 847–60.

Reuters. 2011. “Hong Kong Critics Green with Envy.” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

SCMP (South China Morning Post). 2010. “Green prison shows up failings in our priorities.” 6 Nov 2010. accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

Telegraph. 2013. “Pictures of the Day. 3 May 2013.” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.

Yi, Beh Lih. 2010. “Hong Kong’s Eco Friendly Prison Sparks Row.” accessed 10 Sept. 2015.