Commentary Human Rights

Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language to Describe People in Prison

Victoria Law & Rachel.Roth

Too often, news stories about people in prison or jail use dehumanizing language to describe those under government control. The term “inmate” is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media.

Too often, news stories about people in prison or jail use dehumanizing language to describe those under government control. While this coverage draws attention to widespread abuses in the criminal justice system, it frequently undercuts the humanity of the people featured with derogatory phrases. The term “inmate” is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media. Far from being neutral, this word objectifies and disparages people who are imprisoned. We encourage writers to jettison this term once and for all, and instead to talk about “people in prison or jail”—phrasing that emphasizes the personhood and humanity of each individual before locating that individual in an institution of punishment.

In its exhaustively reported investigative series, “Women, Incarcerated,Rewire delved into the problems routinely faced by women who are pregnant or parenting from behind prison walls. Unfortunately, these moving and powerful stories continuously referred to the women profiled as “inmates.” Rewire is not alone in using this language. The Ms. Magazine blog and The Young Turks, both progressive outlets, use this same terminology in their coverage of shackling pregnant women and sterilization abuse in women’s prisons.

Media has tremendous power to promote and reinforce what seems normal, natural, and acceptable. Journalists can influence their readers’ perceptions by the language they use. The word “inmate” and others like it focus attention on a person’s incarcerated status instead of emphasizing that, even in prison, she is still first and foremost a person. Defining someone as “other,” in the media and other arenas, makes it more acceptable to treat people inhumanely—and for the rest of us to ignore these abuses. But language can evolve so that it addresses injustices without dehumanizing the people described. For example, undocumented people, allies, and linguists successfully pushed major outlets like the Associated Press, USA Today, Fox News Latino, and the Huffington Post to stop using the phrase “illegal immigrant,” which implied that a person’s very existence somehow violates the law and therefore that person deserves any punishment meted out.

The negative connotations of criminal justice language have real-life consequences for people who experience incarceration. As activist, educator and formerly incarcerated mother Tina Reynolds explains in the anthology Interrupted Life, the label “inmate” is “wholly dehumanizing;” it “underscores the invisibility of the human being. It undermines the self-esteem and self-worth of people as individuals, parents, and family members.” In a recent discussion hosted by the news organization The Marshall Project, organizer Khalil Cumberbatch recounts the first time he heard himself referred to as an “inmate”: “I recall feeling violated. It was the first time in my life that someone used a term—to my face—to describe me in a way that dehumanized me on so many levels.” Advocate Andrea James elaborates, “While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as ‘the inmates.’ It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage.”

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It is no coincidence that all of these experts describe being made to feel less than human. As they attest, the word “inmate” facilitates a worldview through which prison administrators and employees objectify the people in their custody. When someone is considered inferior and undeserving, it is easier to treat her badly. It also feeds into the pervasive notion that she is lying to manipulate staff or the system, making it easier to dismiss her needs. As Rewire’s own reporting demonstrates, prison and jail employees, including nurses and doctors, frequently ignore women who say they are in preterm labor and feeling pain when they are pregnant—even when they are visibly bleeding.

Similarly, terms such as “offender” or “criminal” reduce a person solely to someone under arrest or convicted of a crime. They are no longer parents, siblings, children, co-workers or neighbors. These terms also gloss over complex realities. When people are referred to as “drug offenders,” for example, it puts the focus on the individual as someone who has committed a crime or made a “bad choice,” while ignoring the structural problem of treating drug use as a crime instead of a matter of public health, compounded by poverty and lack of access to treatment. Criminalizing drug use is a policy choice that our elected officials have made; it is neither inevitable nor eternal. In fact, some state legislators are now reconsidering this model and rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Equally problematic, the terms “ex-offender,” “ex-con,” and “felon” continue to identify people with their criminal conviction even after they have ostensibly paid their debt to society by serving their sentence. These labels add to the obstacles people face in making a life for themselves with the burden of a criminal record, which can make it impossible to find legal employment, rent an apartment, obtain food stamps or other public assistance, qualify for a student loan, get a driver’s license, or vote. For women, many of whom were primary caregivers when they were arrested, these burdens—and the attitude that anyone with a criminal record must be a bad mother—can also make it impossible to regain custody of their children who were displaced when they were in prison or jail.

By making these points, we are not ignoring the fact that some people in prison have inflicted serious harm on others. At the same time, we also want to point out that many people engage in conduct defined as criminal, but only some get caught and convicted. Regardless of the charge or conviction, once the government takes the step to confine someone, limiting their contact with the outside community and their ability to fend for themselves, the state assumes the responsibility to provide for that person’s basic welfare. This is especially true of health care. Every prison and jail is obligated by the Constitution to provide adequate medical services to the people in its custody; it makes no difference why someone is locked up. But as documented so vividly in “Women, Incarcerated,” jail and prison staff routinely deny women health care. At the same time, jail and prison staff force women to have their labor induced for the institution’s convenience, regardless of the woman’s wishes or medical situation.

We have learned a great deal from the insights of people who have lived in prison. In our own work, we make an effort to talk about “women in prison and jail” so that the emphasis is on “women” first and “prison” second, and to convey that the status of being in prison should not define a person’s entire being or self. While being confined in prison determines a great deal about a person’s life and daily experience, not to mention her future opportunities, it doesn’t change the fact that she is still an individual human being with a personality and relationships.

Organizations are advocating a change in the ways we refer to people who have experienced incarceration. The Center for NuLeadership, a policy and advocacy center founded and staffed by formerly incarcerated people, issued an open letter calling for an end to disparaging terms to describe people who are or ever were incarcerated. The Fortune Society also advocates a “people first” approach in a guide called “Words Matter“ created for medical providers working with patients who have come home from prison.

We believe that language matters. The way we write and speak helps shape people’s perceptions about the world. Women of color coined the term “reproductive justice“ to highlight the intersection of human rights, reproductive self-determination, and social justice. Reproductive justice provides a countervailing set of values to the policing and punishment that send too many people in the United States to prison for too long, and for too little reason. As writers who are involved in both advancing reproductive justice and challenging prison injustices, we hope that our approach contributes to changes in understanding and ultimately in the public policies that affect us all.

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