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Decarcerating language: How we talk about people impacted by the carceral state matters

This blog was written by Mahnoor Imran, intern at Spitfire Strategies

During my freshman year of college, I took an insightful course about the harms of the carceral state called “The Atonement Project.” One of my instructors for the course was formerly incarcerated, and I remember he once wore a shirt that read, “I am not your inmate.” Having only been recently introduced to the lexicon of the criminal legal system, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to reject the word “inmate.” Fast forward through years of deepening my understanding of systemic racism and social constructions of criminality, I can better understand why language like “inmate” can be dehumanizing.

Recently, there has been a movement-wide shift towards using people-first language, language that restores the dignity and humanity of those who are involved in the criminal legal system. This means saying “people who are incarcerated” instead of “offenders” or “criminals” which reduce people to their conditions of confinement. 

People face many social, political and psychological ramifications of their incarceration, and the stigma associated with it makes it challenging for them when they return from their sentence. They experience rampant discrimination in employment, housing and welfare, reinforcing a problematic rationalization of cyclical punishment. 

As early as the 1970s, incarcerated activists have rejected the stigmatizing language used against them. In 1971, men who were incarcerated at Attica state prison in New York drafted a set of demands to improve their living conditions. They wrote

“WE are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.”

Though “beasts” and similar words are not as frequently used to describe people today, the overall message remains salient. Eddie Ellis, a former member of the Black Panthers who was incarcerated at Attica during the uprising of 1971, returned home from prison in the mid-1990s. He worked as a community organizer and activist in New York City, founding the Center for NuLeadership and penning a letter on the language of the incarcerated which was widely distributed in activist networks. He wrote: 

“When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons—all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as 'things' rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the ‘official’ language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.”, an immigration and criminal legal reform organization, conducted a study in 2021 and found that media outlets used dehumanizing labels 21 times more than people-first alternatives. also found that people-first language affected survey participants’ perception of a person involved in the criminal legal system. For example, “felon” elicited a strongly negative response where respondents associated the word with “dangerous,” “scary” and “serious criminal.” On the other hand, “person with a felony conviction” was split evenly between neutral and positive terms such as (“needs rehabilitation,” “made a mistake” and “redeemable”) and negative terms. In short, how we talk about people impacted by the carceral state matters, and people-first language is more conducive to fostering empathy.

Importantly, using people-first language must be done in conjunction with talking about the systemic realities that produce crime. Rahsaan Thomas, a journalist who is presently incarcerated, writes about this:

“I don’t argue that other journalists should refer to me as a ‘person in prison’ because I’m an angel who deserves steak dinners delivered to my cell. I do it because labels invite people telling our stories to obscure the complexity of crime. Sometimes human beings do horrible things, particularly in response to violence, trauma, shame, poverty, racism and other forms of oppression.” 

Indeed, crime has everything to do with socioeconomic conditions, cyclical incarceration, and the divestment of needed resources like healthcare, employment and education. Thomas’s message evokes what Angela Davis describes as the ideological function of prisons:  “an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.”  We cannot ignore and erase the larger realities of oppression that have shaped their lives and led to their incarceration. 

Furthermore, we must be careful that while we humanize the people impacted by the criminal legal system, we do not humanize the system itself. Rather, we must remain cognizant that people on the inside are suffering every day — denial of air conditioning in sweltering heat, maggot-ridden meals, scabies outbreaks, neglect from privatized healthcare, sexual abuse from prison guards, unaffordable phone call costs, traumatic solitary confinement and much more. Labels like “criminal” or “felon” justify these horrid conditions, making it seem acceptable to deny people human rights because they have been convicted of a crime. 

Even so, we must be mindful to not police the language of the oppressed. It would be condescending for many of us from our more privileged positions, to tell people who are currently or formerly incarcerated what to call themselves. In many cases, some of them want to use and reclaim these labels as a means of empowerment and resistance. 

Language shifts are necessary, but they are not instruments to achieving systemic change. We can focus our efforts on boldly confronting the egregious abuses that take place in our prison system, and reduce our society’s reliance on policing and incarceration so that we can better promote public health and safety in our communities.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 18, 2022 at 08:55 am and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.