Language matters for justice reform
Earlier this month, justice reform advocates, business leaders and celebrities joined President Trump at the White House to announce the launch of the “Ready to Work” initiative. The new initiative tasks the federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) with “connecting employers directly to inmates to improve reentry outcomes.” While the event highlighted positive efforts, attendees missed the opportunity to affirm their commitment by using dehumanizing language when referring to people directly impacted by the justice system.
Throughout the press conference speakers, including the president, used the word “inmate” and the Department of Justice press statement used the terms “inmate” and “offender” multiple times. These terms are offensive and dehumanizing. By using labeling language such as “inmate” we immediately ascribe the worst of society’s stigmas to a person based on having been incarcerated – instantly erasing their humanity – and therefore erasing inherent human dignity and rights. Regardless of anyone’s best intentions, we must understand the impact and harm in our words. If we truly intend to overhaul the U.S. justice system and enforce our laws equally and impartially, we must begin by viewing all people caught in its grip equally and with the respect they deserve; anything else treats them as commodities that can be discarded and dismissed which is often what the system does.
I’m a firm believer that we must know where we’ve come from to understand where we’re going. Incarceration and structural racism are rooted in the history of slavery which was made possible through dehumanization of African people and their descendants. At the recent H.R. 40 hearing on reparations, several testimonies included the term “enslaved people” – reminding the world that our ancestors were human beings that were enslaved. Making the distinction between the systems and conditions we are subjected to and retaining the fact that we are human beings, is something to emulate. By recognizing the pain and humanity of our ancestors – the conversation about justice and reparations is elevated. Language matters to any movement for justice.
Words such as offenders, convicts, prisoners and felons have existed in our lexicon for decades if not centuries. But in recent years people have begun speaking out against the use of these dehumanizing terms. Eddy Ellis, the late justice reform leader, penned a letter more than 15 years ago that ignited a movement demanding an end to dehumanizing language. He wrote, “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me is that I begin to believe it myself ‘for, as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ It follows, then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.”
Movement leaders have long-recognized Mr. Ellis’s call to use humanizing language – but journalists, elected officials, and people new to the field must recognize this and make the shift as well. In some state corrections systems, offensive terms such as “inmate” and “offender” have been banned from prisons. A few years ago, the Department of Justice Office of Justice program that oversees criminal justice efforts announced that it would no longer use the word felon or convict in any of its communications and grant solicitations, instead using “a person who committed a crime.” Resources including Mr. Ellis’ letter, the Social Justice Phrase Guide and The Opportunity Agenda’s toolkit are readily available to help people understand humanizing “people-first” language and why it’s important.
When we no longer define someone in the media or other arenas as “other,” we shift culture and policies toward human rights and dignity. By making a conscious effort to change, we can use language that addresses injustice without dehumanizing people — especially black and brown people facing disproportionate discrimination after a record. Several years ago racial justice advocates, successfully stopped media outlets such as the Associated Press from using the phrase “illegal immigrant” which implied that a person’s existence violated the law. Doing so brought attention to the mistreatment and human rights violations experienced by immigrants seeking refuge in this country.
We can achieve the same in the justice space. We must all commit to using terms such as “formerly incarcerated or incarcerated person” or “person with a felony conviction” instead of “ex-con,” “felon,” or “inmate.” By doing so we make a conscious effort to recognize and respect people’s humanity. To do otherwise only reinforces the second-class status we relegate upon many people in this country and therefore stalls our efforts toward equal justice for all.
DeAnna R. Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. She spent time in the State of Ohio’s correctional system and previously served as a senior advisor at the Department of Justice and as the director of reentry for Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of County Commissioners.
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