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Epistemic Injustice & Mass Incarceration: Internship Reflection by Vince Reda

I’m Vince Reda, a recent graduate of Otterbein University and intern with Healing Broken Circles (HBC). I earned my degree in political science while minoring in both pre-law and philosophy. Aside from my major, the bulk of my time in college was spent researching mass incarceration and social justice issues. Since graduating, I have decided to take a gap year before attending law school and will earn my second degree in philosophy while staying involved with Healing Broken Circles to fight against mass incarceration.

As I reflect back on my academic career, I am able to fully understand the importance and significance of the philosophy courses I have taken compared to the rest of the classes pertaining to my major and other university requirements. Philosophy expanded my horizons on issues and topics I was never introduced to, yet the theories and arguments proved to be insightful, allowing me to critically assess any given issue, argument, or challenge. In this reflection, I’d like to share how the knowledge I acquired inside the philosophy classroom related to and served me within my internship at Healing Broken Circles.

Healing Broken Circles is a non-profit organization that strives to combat and end mass incarceration by providing various programs and community-building both inside and out of prison, for people both currently and formerly incarcerated. Oftentimes, there is a lack of access in and out of prison to programs aimed to rehabilitate and educate incarcerated residents or citizens returning from incarceration. Healing Broken Circles seeks to give people the proper tools and knowledge to re-enter society and lower recidivism rates.

Over the course of my academic career studying philosophy, I have developed a deeper connection and drive towards studying ethics and the idea of epistemic injustices. This is the study of testimonial injustice, or how people with less privilege or dominant identity are often not believed and their voices are not valued. This can affect groups of people, as well as society overall. Epistemic injustice is an issue of ethics concerned with the study of knowledge (epistemology) and can simply be explained as an individual that is wronged by not being seen as credible by the majority and/or being censored in attempts to bring valued knowledge on an issue due to their group membership (sex, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.).

While interning at Healing Broken Circles, I was able to pinpoint ethical issues and epistemic injustices that were targeted towards individuals both currently and formerly incarcerated. At the nucleus of epistemic injustices lies stereotypes, biases (both implicit and explicit) that construct the prejudicial, skeptic eyes and ears of a listener. Current residents and people formerly incarcerated are not treated as being credible, worthy, or knowledgeable. The label of “felon” has been a widely adopted method to overlook and ignore the personal testimonies of people incarcerated. By labeling a person as a “felon” a new category of group membership has been formed to silence the unmet needs of those behind bars. Throughout my internship at Healing Broken Circles, I researched legislation within prisons and prisoner rights. I also looked at current news within prisons in Ohio and across the country (especially in the era of COVID-19), to develop educational content for social media campaigns.

In the era of COVID-19, many of the unmet needs that have been silenced have been fueled by the unethical, popular and inhumane societal beliefs that view people currently incarcerated as “criminals'' who are undeserving of basic human dignity and rights, such as access to healthcare and basic protections from the pandemic. Congregate facilities have been prone to spread COVID-19 like a wildfire yet the public pushback to give people in prisons proper access to healthcare during the pandemic has sparked a controversial debate of ethics. Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) made national headlines far before my time at HBC. In April and May 2020, MCI arguably had the worst known outbreak of any congregate facility, nationwide. Over 70% of the staff and over 80% of all residents had tested positive for COVID-19. Many residents and staff members were hospitalized and some lost their life as a result of the pandemic hotspot inside the prison. As a result, the magnitude from COVID-19 left an everlasting aftershock on MCI, locking down visitation and programs that normally took part inside the prison.

Throughout my internship, I worked to critically assess the current conditions inside prisons without the proper care and management during the pandemic. Using the tools from symbolic logic, I could identify logical fallacies to disprove articles that argued against giving people incarcerated vaccines which greatly increased my ability to create educational content for Healing Broken Circles’ social media page.

Epistemic injustices are deeply embedded within society’s treatment towards people currently and formerly incarcerated. By understanding the negative impact epistemic injustices have on society, I realized that it has been a widely practiced tool to silence the needs of people within prison and overlook injustices towards this particular group in our society (people currently and formerly incarcerated). Moreover, learning about ethics and epistemic injustices has allowed me to further my understanding of labeling people of various social statuses and identities. The term “felon,” “inmate,” and “convict” (on top of other commonly used terms) carries an underlying connotation to strip a person of their ability to credibly speak about their personal testimony, resulting in a credibility deficit.

Although I was not physically able to step foot inside the prison due to the pandemic, many close family, friends, and colleagues of mine were curious, disgruntled, and upset with my support and work for those incarcerated. I have realized that somewhere throughout history, it appears that society has given the government (police departments, prosecutors etc.) the power and credibility to appear lawful and truthful in bolstering their cases to lock our fellow citizens behind bars. Due to my academic studies throughout college and work with HBC, I have stepped foot into a new world, seeing incarceration firsthand as a cruel, wrongful, and inefficient system to “correct” unlawful behavior. From my work at HBC, it’s evident that the programs authentically work and break down recidivism rates. HBC’s work actually prepares people for a true life after incarceration, with the tools, means, resources, connections and knowledge to thrive and strive upon reentering back into society.

Furthermore, it is also apparent that the truth of the matter on the justice system is that the state truly does not care to protect one’s rights after conviction, nor to uphold the constitution; rather the work of defense attorneys is to tirelessly fight to uphold the constitution, with far less resources than the government (which is supposed to represent “the people”). Ironically enough, and potentially news to many, our constitution also ensures the people with an absolute right to legal advocacy as well as counsel and an absolute right to a defense, regardless of perceived guilt or innocence. We must have due process. Under the scope of these absolute rights lies an out of balance legal system. A broken legal system focused on retribution and punishment contrary to restorative justice and social resources will continue to produce human rights violations, broken families, and communities, and continue to pose public health crises during and after pandemics. The knowledge obtained within the classroom served me in my work with Healing Broken Circles to fight mass incarceration and show up for the needs of people caught in the justice system. Philosophy opened me to new ways of thinking, by developing my ability to critically assess issues and arguments. Issues pertaining to ethics and epistemic injustice were at the root of my research to expose common forms of injustices plaguing people in and out of prison. Countless people in my personal life took serious issue with my work and passion to fight for those trapped behind bars and arguing for reform.

We live in a society where the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty” has been lost somewhere along the way to where we are now. I have been questioned more times than I can count by family members, friends, and colleagues about my advocacy for rights for those incarcerated and striving towards my goal of becoming a “criminal” defense attorney. I was immediately affirmed each day on the brokenness of the penal system while working with HBC. Despite the backlash and lack of support from people close to me I have enjoyed civil debates with family, friends and all those against fighting mass incarceration. Regardless of the lack of support from those around me, I cannot be swayed against pursuing my goal to become a defense attorney. I fully believe that with more exposure and education, more people would undeniably realize just how broken the justice system is and how much work we all collectively must do to find a more productive and humane solution.


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