Royce Novak


Advisor: Alfred W. McCoy

Royce Novak headshot


I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of History whose research focuses on prison islands in colonial and Cold War Indonesia and Vietnam. My academic interests lie in the exploration of the history of prisons from environmental, legal, and social perspectives. I received an M.A. in history at UW-Madison in 2015 as well as a B.A. in Asian studies and B.S. in urban and regional studies at Cornell University in 2013. Besides my dissertation project, I have also researched and presented on topics including migration, “comfort women,” and music in the context of Southeast Asian history. I’m also interested in the translation of historical sources and literature.

My dissertation, “Archipelago of Extinction: Prison Islands in the Making and Unmaking of Empire” closely examines prison islands spanning colonial and Cold War Indonesia and Vietnam in order to understand how this unique carceral form has played a significant role in shaping histories of colonialism, empire, punishment, and resistance. My dissertation considers prison islands as a distinct carceral form and investigates their position in larger imperial and global carceral formations. Exploring prison islands through the lenses of legal, environmental, and social history while engaging with theories and methodologies from geography and comparative literature, My dissertation combines archival materials and the writings of former political prisoners to gain a deeper understanding of how prison islands have been crucial features of modern statecraft and political struggles that tend to outlast the governments and geopolitical epochs that brought them into being.

Through focused research on particular prison islands in Indonesia and Vietnam, my dissertation further sheds light on the role of colonialism in creating the foundations for contemporary penal systems throughout the world, challenging the dominant narrative that associates the rise of modern prison systems with enlightenment thought and reform movements by emphasizing the ways in which prison islands in the colonized world represented the first realization of a prison industrial complex, a term most frequently invoked to describe the current state of prison systems in the US. My research on prison islands offers further insights into how these unique sites directly connect institutions such as slavery and contract labor to modern forms of mass incarceration while also acting as symbols of injustice and political struggle.


B.A. in Asian Studies and B.S. in Urban and Regional Studies at Cornell University


  • Southeast Asian History

MA Title

  • “Ethnic Ordering and the Dynamics of Colonization on a Prison Island: Indigenous People, Political Prisoners, and the New Order on Buru, 1969-1979 “

Working Dissertation Title

  • “Archipelago of Extinction: Prison Islands in the Making and Unmaking of Empires”

Courses Taught (as TA)

  • History 130 – Intro to World History
  • History 244 – Intro to Southeast Asia
  • History 246 – Southeast Asian Refugees of the Cold War
  • History 319 – The Vietnam Wars