M. Eve Hanan

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Incarcerated people have a notoriously difficult time advocating for themselves. Like other authoritarian institutions, prisons severely curtail and often punish speech, organizing, and self-advocacy. Also, like other authoritarian institutions, prison administrators are inclined to suppress protest rather than respond to the grounds for protest. Yet, despite impediments to their participation, incarcerated people have organized during the pandemic, advocating for themselves through media channels, public forums, and the courts. Indeed, a dramatic increase in incarcerated activism correlates with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights injustice in other areas of criminal legal practices, it reveals both the dangers of silencing incarcerated speech and the potential for prisoner self-advocacy. This essay discusses silencing and speech in carceral spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic, using a theory of political philosophy called epistemic injustice. The theory of epistemic injustice addresses how disfavored social groups are excluded from sharing knowledge in public conversations. The stifling of prisoner speech occurs in part because incarcerated people are deliberately separated from the outside world. But it also reflects their status as a stigmatized-and thus discredited group. Even when their speech is heard, it is discounted as manipulative and untrustworthy.

Second, this essay argues that the self-advocacy efforts made by incarcerated people during the pandemic demonstrate the democratic value of their participation. Among the necessary predicates to meaningful change in criminal legal practices is the democratic participation of the targets of those practices, including suspects, criminal defendants, and prisoners. Their participation in the political sphere serves a vital democratic function the absence of which is felt not only in the authoritarians structure of prisons, but in the failure to enact widespread change to criminal legal practices.

Publication Citation

18 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 475 (2021).