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California Law Review Online

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Despite the ever-growing number of exonerations in the U.S.— and the corresponding surge in scholarly interest in wrongful convictions in recent years—research on the carceral experiences of wrongfully-convicted persons remains strikingly limited. In this essay, we draw on in-depth interviews with 15 exonerated men to explore the moral dimensions of the experience of wrongful imprisonment. We argue that imprisonment entails what we refer to as “coerced moral degradation,” whereby innocent men’s self-preservation efforts in prison require them to feign being—and at times actually become— morally worse people. We argue that these findings speak to the fundamental question of what the law is for, and, further, that the coerced moral degradation that the men experienced in prison provides a compelling basis for conservative and progressive scholars to find some common ground on the moral purpose of the law.

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