Epistemic Activism and the Politics of Credibility: Testimonial Injustice in a North Carolina Jail
Carceral institutions present unique knowledge problems for the communities that they purportedly serve. These problems are simultaneously epistemic and political: correctional institutions are accountable to local publics that do not know—and may be actively discouraged from knowing—how they affect the individuals detained within them. In this paper we focus on one part of the carceral system, the jail. Beyond the general invisibility/inaudibility of carceral institutions, the jail involves a peculiarly paradoxical epistemic injustice. While the public is required to treat (most) jail detainees as legally innocent, it subjects them to the stigma of presumed criminality and treats them as guilty in an epistemic sense—as untrustworthy narrators of experience and knowledge. Although detainee testimony could be a powerful source for public knowledge about the jail, the voices of detainees are rarely allowed to reach publics outside jails; and when such testimony becomes possible, it is typically discredited or ignored precisely because it is detainee testimony, and the detainees themselves are unfairly disqualified from speaking about the conditions of their own lives. This kind of epistemic injustice, we argue, can only be appreciated through the detailed analysis of a case study, because the injustice occurs not merely in the transactions between a testifier and an audience, but in specific relations between epistemic contexts and patterns of communicative interaction.
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