Graduate Student Reflection: Reyna Hernandez

The Pozen Center supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a 15-month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion.

Here, Reyna Hernandez (PhD Candidate, Sociology) reports on fieldwork conducted from May 2018 – September 2020. This project is ongoing and contributing to her pre-dissertation research. Reyna aims to further understand how former prison inmates who were wrongfully convicted and now exonerated experienced incarceration. This work shows how the legal system’s miscarriages of justice perpetually transform the prison experience.


Reyna Hernandez, Sociology
2020 Pozen PhD Research Grant awardee

Human rights are at the core of the U.S. legal system’s basic principles. As an institution tasked with upholding and carrying out justice, the criminal legal system was once seen as possessing the utmost prestige, legal authority, and legitimacy – an institution unlikely to err in administering justice. However, given the advent of using DNA evidence to overturn convictions in 1989 and increasing consciousness about wrongful convictions and exonerations based on innocence, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the grave errors that the legal system and its actors could make. Of these many errors, I am fervently interested in wrongful convictions. In the context of the Innocence Movement and the largely legal research on wrongful conviction and exoneration, wrongful conviction typically refers to when a factually innocent person is convicted for a crime they did not commit. In most cases when a court determines that a person is guilty of one or more violent crimes, the defendant – thereafter deemed violent and criminal – can face a prison sentence ranging from years to life in prison and even capital punishment on death row.

 

Much of the research on wrongful conviction and exoneration concentrates on the causes of wrongful convictions, how to prevent them, and is gaining greater traction focusing on the post-incarceration period for those who are freed and exonerated. However, work on how wrongfully convicted people experience(d) prison is lacking. Given my undergraduate training as a criminologist, as well as my deep interests in penology and the inmate experience, I am curious to uncover how former inmates who were wrongfully convicted and now exonerated experienced incarceration.

 

Prison conditions shape inmates’ experiences while incarcerated and, subsequently, in the post-incarceration period in multiple ways. Conditions moderating the prison experience include deprivation from the outside world, inmates’ pre-prison identities, inmate and facility structure and culture, and tough-on-crime policies like three-strikes laws and indeterminate sentencing among others. Moreover, the era of mass incarceration has transformed the punishment landscape since the mid-1970s, creating a deeply gendered and racialized U.S. criminal legal system that locks up more people for longer periods of time, on average, than any other nation in the world.

 

One thing I find most interesting about research on the prison experience is that much of it fails to question whether inmates committed or took part in their alleged crimes, in some ways assuming that inmates’ “criminal” and “guilty” statuses are factual and final. Consequently, these assumptions allude to the idea that guilt and criminality (defined by committing or taking part in crimes) are the universal factors that unify inmates’ incarceration experiences. Thus, I aimed to challenge these widely held assumptions to uncover other mechanisms that may moderate the prison experience, particularly for those who experienced wrongful conviction.


My Pozen Family Center for Human Rights-funded research is an ongoing project contributing to my predissertation research where I utilize in-depth qualitative interviews with U.S. exonerees to examine how they understood and experienced their wrongful conviction throughout their incarceration. My central argument posits that among the mechanisms shaping the prison experience, laws and procedures targeted toward pursuing and achieving exoneration based on innocence, are overlooked. While focused on wrongfully convicted and factually innocent inmates, the goal of this research is not to moralize wrongful incarceration as the criminal legal system’s sole injustice or reinforce guilt and criminality onto inmates who took part in or committed crimes. Instead, I aim to further understand how wrongfully convicted inmates’ experiences differ from most of their fellow inmates’.

“I aim to further understand how wrongfully convicted inmates' experiences differ from most of their fellow inmates'.”

In recognizing these distinctions, we can identify undiscovered phenomena about the criminal legal system and glean more holistic insights into the inmate experience.

 

Support from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights allowed me to continue investigating how institutions like the criminal legal system and the law affect impacted individuals in the earlier stages of my doctoral studies. The funds allowed me to compensate my participants for their time and purchase books, materials, and software that enhanced my data analyses. Moreover, this earlier start to conducting my research gave me the opportunity to develop interests and insights into topics that I plan to centralize in my dissertation project. I look forward to continuing these research efforts in hopes of addressing the human rights issues that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals face within and because of the criminal legal system.

 

Reyna Hernandez is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on how law and the criminal legal system create and maintain social and systemic inequities, as well as how they affect impacted individuals.