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.

Analysis Human Rights

ICE Releases Reports for 18 Migrants Who Died in Detention, Medical Neglect Is Suspected

Tina Vasquez

Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don't know.

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the deaths of 18 migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from mid-2012 to mid-2015. In some cases, the deaths were likely preventable and the result of “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards.”

These are not the only deaths that occurred, however. ICE acknowledges on its website that 31 deaths have occurred between May 2012 and mid-June of this year. It is unclear whether ICE intends to release information about the additional 13 deaths that have occurred.

Even so, these new findings add to a growing body of evidence showing what HRW calls “egregious violations” of medical care standards in detention centers. A February report found such violations contributed to at least eight in-custody deaths over a two-year period.

The public is just beginning to learn more about the deeply rooted problem, Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, explained to Rewire. Long referenced an ongoing investigation by reporter Seth Freed Wessler at the Nation, which explores the numerous deaths that have occurred inside immigrant-only prisons.

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Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don’t know. For example, HRW worked with two independent medical experts to review the 18 death reviews released by ICE. The experts concluded that substandard medical care “probably contributed to the deaths of seven of the 18 detainees, while potentially putting many other detainees in danger as well.” Long told Rewire that the information provided by ICE simply wasn’t enough for their independent medical experts to determine that all 18 deaths were related to inadequate medical care, but that it was “likely.”

So there is the larger, systemic issue of inadequate medical care. Researchers at HRW also don’t know exactly how ICE collects information or why the agency releases information when it does. There’s also the core of the issue, as Long noted to Rewire: that the United States “unnecessarily” detains undocumented immigrants in “disturbing conditions” for prolonged periods of time.

Major Failures Lead to Death

The new HRW report identified two of the most dangerous ways ICE is failing migrants in detention: not following up on symptoms that require assistance and not responding quickly to emergencies. Both failures are illustrated by the case of 34-year-old Manuel Cota-Domingo, who died of heart disease, untreated diabetes, and pneumonia after being detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.

ICE’s death review for Cota-Domingo suggests there was a language barrier and that Cota-Domingo was worried about having to pay for health care, which isn’t surprising given that detention centers make migrants pay for things like phone calls to their attorneys and family members. HRW asked Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the Eloy Detention Center, about potential fees for medical care, and it said there are no fees for such services at Eloy. For whatever reason, Cota-Domingo was not aware he had a legal right to access the medical care he needed.

When it became clear to his cellmate that Cota-Domingo was in serious need of medical attention and was having trouble breathing, the cellmate “banged on a wall to get a guard’s attention. His cellmate said he did that for three hours before anyone came to help,” Long said. The researcher told Rewire the death report outlines how investigators checked to see if the banging would have been audible to correctional officers.  It was. “Once [the cellmate] got their attention, our medical experts said this was something that should have been followed up on immediately, but the nurse decided to wait several hours before doing anything. All of these sluggish responses went on for eight hours. This is not how you treat an emergency,” Long said.

As Human Rights Watch noted in the report, “When officers finally notified medical providers of his condition, they delayed evaluating him and finally sent him to the hospital in a van instead of an ambulance. Both medical experts concluded that the combination of these delays likely contributed to a potentially treatable condition becoming fatal.”

In other death reviews by ICE, the agency’s own records show “evidence of the misuse of isolation for people with mental disabilities, inadequate mental health evaluation and treatment, and broader medical care failures.” Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun all committed suicide in ICE detention after showing signs of “serious mental health conditions.” HRW’s independent experts determined that “inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have significantly exacerbated their mental health problems.”

It’s important to note that none of the death reviews released by ICE admit any wrongdoing, and that’s primarily because they don’t seek to examine whether medical negligence was at play. The reports simply present information about the deaths.

“There is no conclusion drawn, really,” Long told Rewire. “There’s one [report] in particular that even goes beyond that; it doesn’t even take into account the quality of care that led to the death, even though it’s clearly an issue of quality of care. That raises the question: What is the report for? ICE doesn’t conclude the cause. If you read [the death reviews], you can see there’s a lot of detailed information included in them that allows someone with expertise in correctional health care and who is familiar with how these systems should work, to make an assessment about whether care contributed to death, but that’s not something ICE doesat least not in the information we are able to access.”

ICE’s Murky Death-Review Process 

In a statement to Rewire, ICE explained that when a person dies while in the agency’s custody, their “death triggers an immediate internal inquiry into the circumstances.” The summary document ICE releases to the public is “the result of exhaustive case reviews conducted by ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), which was established in 2009 as part of the agency’s comprehensive detention reforms,” Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson with ICE, told Rewire in a prepared statement.

In fact, the ODO was created as a direct result of a series of reforms from the Obama administration after reports of human rights abuses and deaths in detention centers. The death review it produces includes a mix of findings from ICE’s own investigators and from a Beaumont, Texas-based company called Creative Corrections.

According to its website, Creative Corrections serves “local, state and federal government agencies,” offering “training, advising, professional management and consulting services” in “correctional, law enforcement, rule of law, and judicial systems.” The company contracts include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“From what we can see from the documents, both ICE and Creative Corrections interview various people involved, check records, do what seems to be a pretty robust investigation for the death review,” Long said. “Unfortunately, in the set of death reviews that we used for this investigation, [the public doesn’t] have access to the Creative Corrections reports or any of the exhibits that go along with them.”

As the ICE spokesperson noted, the summary documents are typically written by ICE staff. The documents released to the public do not include medical records, full reports from Creative Corrections, or any exhibits that would provide more insight into the apparent medical neglect resulting in an estimated 161 people dying in ICE custody since October 2003. Six migrants have died in ICE custody since March 2016, two of whom died at two different detention centers in the same week. The causes of these most recent deathsand whether they can be attributed to medical neglect—is still unknown.

“If we had access to all of the information gathered during these investigations, including the reports from Creative Corrections, they would be very rich sources of information,” Long said.

Long and other researchers are also hoping for more information regarding the deaths that happen just after migrants are released from ICE custody. Teka Gulema, an Ethiopian asylum seeker detained at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, was released from ICE custody in November 2015 while in the hospital after becoming paralyzed from a bacterial infection acquired in detention. He died in January.

“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” Long said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploitedand for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”

The researcher said she has “no idea” when or why ICE decides to release information, including death reviews.

ICE did not respond to Rewire‘s request for information about its schedule or process for releasing such information.

“Maybe they released the 18 reports because they were cleared for release. Maybe a congressional office asked for them. Maybe they decided to be transparent. It could have been a [Freedom of Information Act] request from the ACLU. I wish I knew, but we really have no idea who decides—or why they decide—to release information, especially without making anyone aware that it’s been released,” the researcher told Rewire.

In April, ICE posted a series of spreadsheets about the inner workings of the detention system on their website that Long said provided a lot of information about how detention operates. The spreadsheets were removed from the site in a matter of days, too soon for many researchers—including HRW—to download them all.

“It’s a big system. We still don’t totally know how it works, which in itself is a major problem,” Long said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to always check the ICE website. You never know what you’ll find.”

Rethinking Detention

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson is engaging in what some advocates are calling an “enforcement overdrive,” by funneling more undocumented immigrants into an already overcrowded detention system thanks to the detention bed quota established in 2009. This quota requires 34,000 undocumented migrants be locked up each day. It is in place to ensure more people get deported, though it’s costing taxpayers $2 billion a year while also creating “a profitable market for both private prison corporations and local governments,” the National Immigration Forum has said.

Reporting for the Nation, Michelle Chen recently noted that “migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.”

Long told Rewire that 80 percent of migrants currently in detention are in what is considered “mandatory detention,” which, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, means that “non-citizens with certain criminal convictions must be detained by ICE. People who are subject to mandatory detention are not entitled to a bond hearing and must remain in detention while removal proceedings are pending against them.” This also means that those in mandatory detention aren’t allowed to have an individual assessment by ICE of their case, “so they just sit in immigration detention indefinitely,” Long said.

“This system doesn’t work. We’re detaining far too many people for far too long and not determining on an individual level if they should be detained in the first place, taking into account all of the options available,” Long said. Options include being monitored by ICE using telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits.

Long joins a long list of undocumented community members, researchers, organizers, activists, and other advocates pushing for the Obama administration—and whoever comes after it—to see detention as a last resort, rather than the only resort.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the disturbing conditions in detention centersthat’s what our report is about. But step one requires taking a step back and rethinking this system and how it’s unnecessary and also abuses vulnerable peoples’ rights,” Long said. “In terms of the legality of treating people this way, under U.S. and international law, people who are detained are entitled to medical treatment. The state has an obligation to provide care to this population. They are failing, and people are dying.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: More Pushback Against Criminalizing the Poor

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

In both Virginia and Missouri, efforts are underway to end practices of jailing people over outstanding court fees.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick reports on a new federal class action suit targeting a Virginia scheme that, advocates claim, bilks the poor by suspending the driver’s license of those unable to pay certain court fees.

Jennings, Missouri, has agreed to pay almost $5 million to nearly 2,000 people who were put in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay the court fines and fees that they owed.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear arguments in a Republican challenge to restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. At issue is whether the Virginia Constitution allows the governor to restore those voting rights en masse or on a case-by-case basis.

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Congratulations to the Washington Supreme Court for appointing its first woman clerk. Ever. In the history of the court. Slow clap for y’all.

The American Prospect interviewed NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Ilyse Hogue on what pro-choice advocates see as the coming fights over abortion rights and access post-Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. 

Nina Martin has a great read on four of the ways research has changed the abortion debate.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has agreed not to enforce a state campaign finance law, which conservative groups like Right to Life say violates the First Amendment by requiring nonprofits to report supporters’ private information.

Rewire alum Aimee Arrambide has co-authored an op-ed with Gloria Totten about Texas’ new frontier in harassing women: requiring fetal remains to be cremated or buried.

Amanda Marcotte writes about the Center for Medical Progress’ smear campaign against Planned Parenthood and how it succeeded only in embarrassing conservatives.

Check out the National Abortion Federation’s timeline of the Center for Medical Progress attacks against abortion providers.

Even the generally conservative Wall Street Journal thinks the Republican refusal to hold hearings and a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court is terrible for democracy.