Words matter. And how we refer to people who are – or were formerly – incarcerated matter more than most.
At Jails to Jobs we have struggled since our early days to try to determine the words to use that aren’t inhuman, derogatory or stereotypical. Words like “ex-offender” and “felon” are good for search optimization but are not proper ways to refer to someone who has been incarcerated. The terms “inmate” and “prisoner” also have negative connotations, because they too define people by their crimes, as we shall see in this article. The words we choose to describe someone are important. Words matter.
Language holds immense power in shaping perceptions and attitudes, and we want to make sure that those who are incarcerated and who were previously incarcerated are perceived as human beings above all else. Ideally, they are human beings who made mistakes but learned from them and are ready to move on.
Using negative terminology contributes to the dehumanization and marginalization of those incarcerated and those who are seeking a fresh start after incarceration. It reduces individuals to their past mistakes and criminal records. Dehumanizing language perpetuates harmful stereotypes and fails to acknowledge the complexity of human lives. Every individual has a unique story, and identifying them solely by their criminal history negates their potential for growth, change and renewal.
Determining what language to use
So, what is the proper language to use so that words matter? And how to we learn to use it?
Fortunately, a couple of organizations have put together resources to guide us as we determine appropriate language.
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that works to bring change to the criminal justice system, has created The Language Project. The project includes:
- A series of articles on what the impact of our words has on those who have experience with incarceration.
- What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration, a guide to proper terminology
- Alternatives to the labels.
Among the articles is one by Lawrence Bartley, who said that hearing officers use the term “inmate” as an insult or condescendingly made him commit to calling those incarcerated by their names. “Words like “inmate,” “prisoner,” “convict,” “felon” and “offender” are like brands. They reduce human beings to their crimes and cages,” Bartley said.
Few things we’ve read describe the situation better than something he wrote:
“I had a taste of this seemingly benign dehumanization when I visited the prison 11 months after I was released. I felt a chill when the gate closed behind me, but my uneasiness was quickly erased by my excitement to see the fellas. I made a pit stop at the restroom. One door was for incarcerated people, another was for civilians and guards. I took a step toward the incarcerated bathroom out of habit, but the guard on duty stopped me, smiled, and said, “You can go into the civilian bathroom because you are a person now.”
Rather than using the terms “inmates” and “convicts,” the Marshall Project includes people in every description of those who are or who have been incarcerated. These include incarcerated people, people in prison (or jail), formerly incarcerated people.
Instead of using such terms as “felon,” “offender” or “parolee,” The Marshall Project states that someone (person’s name) was “convicted of a felony robbery.” Or someone (person’s name) is “registered as a sex offender in California.”
It does, however, use prisoner and prisoners when it talks about people in prison.
Underground Scholars Language Guide
Another excellent resource on the importance of determining the most appropriate words to use was created by Berkeley Underground Scholars. Berkeley Underground Scholars is an academic support program at UC Berkeley that produces a prison-to-university pipeline, and has expanded its effort to multiple University of California campuses through the Underground Scholars Initiative.
Its Underground Scholars Language Guide informs the public on how to communicate about people involved in what it prefers to call the carceral system.
Among the terminology it encourages is:
- Incarcerated person instead of convict or prisoner.
- Formerly incarcerated person instead of ex-convict or ex-felon.
- System impacted.
- Carceral system instead of criminal justice system.
- Person on parole rather than parolee.
- Sex workers rather than prostitutes, webcam workers or escorts.
Gang member is the one descriptive term that has no replacement. However, if a reference needs to be made, someone (person’s name) is “a gang member” or “former gang member” is considered to be more inclusive and courteous.
Encouraging a more inclusive society
Yes, words matter and can make a difference not just to individuals but to society as a whole. As a society, we should strive to build a more inclusive and compassionate environment for everyone, including those who have served time in prison. By using respectful and non-stigmatizing language, we create a culture that values rehabilitation and recognizes the potential for growth and change in every individual. Encouraging a more inclusive society is not only beneficial for the formerly incarcerated but also for fostering stronger communities overall.
Editor’s Note: Now that you have an idea about why words matter and our philosophy on the subject, you may want to check out Jails to Jobs and how it benefits those who are in reentry. You’ll find plenty of job search tips, a directory of free- and low-cost tattoo removal programs, a directory of organizations that give away free interview clothing and our Second Chance Employers Network, which highlights the stories of companies that hire people who have been incarcerated and offers ideas, suggestions and other resources to employers on how to create a Second Chance Program of their own.