Watch Your Language: A Reminder to Please Stop Using Dehumanizing Words
Date:  04-24-2015

Criminal justice experts agree that words like “inmate” and “ex-con” have got to go
Once again Reentry Central would like to point out that how a person is described by others can have a profound effect on him or her. Reentry Central admits that in the past we have been guilty of using terms like “inmate” or “parolee” but over the past five years we have evolved in our terminology and have chosen words that we hope will allow our readers to understand that we are referring to “people” first and foremost when we report on subjects having to do with mass incarceration or reintegration back into the community.

While some people scoff at eliminating words like “inmate” and “ex-con” from their vocabulary, more and more people realize this is a good place to start if one is serious about criminal justice reform, and if an organization wants to be taken seriously by some of the top experts and policy makers. Just look at the statements of top criminal justice reform organizations such as the Safer Foundation, the Sentencing Project, JustLeadership USA, the Fortune Society, the Osborne Foundation and the Open Society Foundations and you will quickly realize that certain words have been banished forever.

We still, reluctantly, cross-post work from others that use old and dehumanizing terms if the subject matter is new and provides important research or information on reentry or criminal justice reform. We hope that our readers will heed the advice that Victoria Law and Rachel Roth wrote in an article published by RH Reality Check.

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

by Victoria Law and Rachel Roth April 20, 2015

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,” RH Reality Check 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.” RH Reality Check 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.

Read more.