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  • An Epistemology of Incarceration: Constructing Knowing on the Inside
  • The LoCI and Wittenberg University Writing Group1

In a situation of oppression, epistemic relations are screwed up.

—José Medina 2013, 27

There is a psychology to doing time.

—Member of the LoCI and Wittenberg University Working Group

We write from the perspective and insights of people who are currently incarcerated as well as people who have been in a working relationship with them for the past two years. Many of us began working together in the fall semester of 2014 through an Inside-Out Prison Exchange course and have continued working together through additional coursework and reading groups.2 The writers in our group who are incarcerated are theorizing from the perspective of people who have served at least five years in prison, with approximately half of us having served more than ten years, and some having served more than twenty years. The vast majority of the incarcerated portion of our group has served time in multiple prisons, as well as prisons of a higher security level than our current level-one and -two prison. Furthermore, we are working from inside of a men’s prison. Though our working group includes outside women as well as two outside men, we are primarily writing from the experiences of men who are incarcerated. We believe that many of our [End Page 9] arguments are applicable to a broad range of people who are incarcerated, but acknowledge that gender plays a role in our perspective.

The arguments in this paper reflect our collective position on the subversive lucidity that can be generated by people who are incarcerated. We call this type of subversive lucidity an epistemology of incarceration. We explore the limitations and achievements of the epistemic structure of the lives of incarcerated people and put forth the ways that an epistemology of incarceration is formed as a strategic epistemology such that people make knowledge and meaning for themselves even under conditions of incarceration.

A Carceral Way of Knowing

In his book The Epistemology of Resistance, José Medina argues that subversive lucidity is a critical achievement of oppressed people that results from the development of key epistemic virtues: humility, diligence/curiosity, and open-mindedness.3 These epistemic virtues are developed when oppressed subjects critically assess and engage positive epistemic resistance—one that is both generated through an internal oppositional push that is “critical, unmasks prejudices and biases, reacts to bodies of ignorance,” and through an external oppositional force that requires “one to be self-critical, to compare and contrast one’s beliefs to meet justificatory demands, to recognize cognitive gaps” (Medina 2013, 50). When the above epistemic virtues emerge out of this critical, self-reflexive work of people who are oppressed and marginalized, “then the lucidity of the [epistemically] virtuous subject can have a subversive character, having the potential to question widely held assumptions and prejudices, to see things afresh and redirect our perceptual habits, to find a way out or an alternative to epistemic blind alleys, and so on” (Medina 2013, 45). Thus, subversive lucidity is not something that every oppressed person has, but oppression and positive responsive engagement with epistemic resistance are necessary for the development of a subversive lucidity.

The subversive lucidity that can be developed by a person situated within the walls of prison takes on a unique character because, unlike the subversive lucidity that can be acquired by people who have always lived on the outside, prison walls create a distinct physical barrier, with epistemic, emotional, and material consequences, between people who are incarcerated and the rest of the population, between inside and outside. This results in at least three primary characteristics that make the subversive nature of an epistemology of incarceration unique.

First, for many people who are incarcerated these walls present such a strong physical and emotional dichotomy between inside and outside—the world they live in that is managed and shaped by others and the world that is inaccessible to them but perceives and observes them—that this results in a type of liminal consciousness that exists in a space situated between a Du Boisian double [End Page 10] consciousness and...


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