If we want to change our justice system, we have to change the way we talk about it

Aug 24, 2020

Inmate. Convict. Felon. Murderer.

A single word can strip away a person’s humanity, reducing all the dimensions of them to the worst moment in their lives. These words are used all the time when journalists, lawmakers and the general public talk about system-impacted people, and our justice system at large.

“That narrative is once you make a mistake, no matter what you do, you will always be that mistake,” Represent Justice Ambassador Tyra Patterson said. “That lapse in judgment or that wrongful conviction should remain associated with you for the rest of your life. It doesn’t recognize that an individual could be a survivor of extraordinary circumstances.”

The way the public has been taught to talk about the prison system, and those affected by it, only exacerbates the dehumanizing and punitive nature of the carceral system. Labels like “Murderer,” “Convict,” and “Felon” are stuck onto people long after they’ve served their sentence, reducing them to nothing more than their offenses and removing all other context from their lives and stories.

“The way we talk about the justice system feels like an evil fiction novel where ghouls and goblins who are inherently ugly and evil exist and belong elsewhere,” Represent Justice Surrogate Adnan Khan said, “It’s stigmatizing and it corners people into a false identity.”

Patterson explains that the majority of people who go to prison — a disproportionate number of them people of color — have also faced educational and economic disparities that led to their incarceration. When people continue to use those stigmatizing words, they’re stripping away the context of what led to the incarceration, and refusing to interrogate the root causes of a phenomenon that currently has 2.3 million people behind bars.

Even worse, the language we choose to use can bolster the social disparities system-impacted people face in all of our institutions.

“Language has intentionality and meaning. How we refer to people, is how we subsequently treat (mistreat) people,” Khan said. That mistreatment shows up in our policies, laws, and allocation of funding to healthcare, education, treatment for mental health and substance recovery services, and so much more.

“By using people-centered language, we illuminate the human being and understand that human beings have needs that we as a society/government should meet.”

Take words like “felon,” “convict,” “inmate,” “criminal,” “offender” and “prisoner” out of your vocabulary. Instead of using language that strips people of their humanity and places the system at the forefront, use language that places their personhood first. You can say “formerly/currently incarcerated individual,” “person convicted of a felony,” or “system-impacted person.”

Instead of calling someone a “parolee,” say “person who is on parole.” If you’re thinking of referring to a young person as a juvenile delinquent, instead say “incarcerated youth.”

If you’re talking about substance use, refer to that person as a “person with a history of substance use” instead of an “addict.” These changes may seem long and clunky to say at first, but it’s worth it to know you’re not adding to the stigma of an already unjust system.

“Calling people what they have been accused, or even convicted of, doesn’t help the person to evolve and heal after they have experienced incarceration.” Patterson said. “We use the description of murderer or thief in place of names and it’s done out of cruelty. The moment that happens, you are leaving no room to allow that person to get beyond what they have done or what they have been accused of.”

For Represent Justice surrogate Xavier Mc-Elrath Bey, that shift is deeply personal.

“Learning to eliminate dehumanizing words from my own vocabulary, words which once confined my identity, has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.” He said. “It feels like being released from another kind of prison.”

Because Incarcerated people are more than their worst mistake. They are our parents, grandparents, siblings and partners. They are readers, writers, artists and film buffs. When we choose to use words that villainize them, we are choosing to keep them at an arm’s length instead of standing in community with them.

If we want to build a better, fairer justice system, we have to start with changing the way we talk about it and restoring their humanity.

“Language is what keeps people connected,” Tyra said. “Language carries our beliefs, our cultures, our experiences and our emotions. Narratives begin with language. What comes out of our mouths holds weight. We can uplift people through language and we can also tear them down. You have nothing to lose by humanizing people, but you have so much to gain.”