In Criminal Justice, Language Matters


At the numerous prisoner reentry seminars, conferences, forums and panels I attend and participate in around the country, I encounter many well-meaning people who sincerely want to help individuals returning home from a period of incarceration.

However, some of those people use language that is hurtful (and, more importantly, counterproductive) to the reentry cause.

I realize their pejorative words are not intended to set the movement back, but they are — out of ignorance — nonetheless perpetuating negative stereotypes with their thoughtless words.

Terms like “ex-cons” and “ex-felons” are buzzwords the media uses to conjure up images of persons who are still a danger to society and therefore should be closely watched and/or are not worthy of our trust. It is much easier to treat someone unfairly, deny them employment, and make their return from a period of incarceration exceedingly more difficult if — in the collective public mind — these individuals deserve such treatment.

Years ago, the homeless were called “bums” and “hobos” but these terms are no longer acceptable when referring to this population. In a similar fashion, individuals suffering from mental illnesses were once called “morons,” “lunatics” and “fruitcakes” (as well as many other far more uglier terms), but when society came to the humane realization that we should treat these sick individuals with dignity and respect. the first step in the process was to change the language we use to refer to them.

A similar change must occur in the field of prisoner reentry if we are serious about instituting real solutions to this serious national problem.

The accepted term for those returning home from prison today is “formerly incarcerated persons” and the faster we can make the linguistic shift and drop the pejorative terms, the faster the problem will be solved.

Similarly, the term “inmate” is commonly used by virtually everyone—except by “inmates,” who much prefer other terms. “Inmate,” at its worse, conjures up an image of some helpless, powerless soul, locked away, perhaps in an asylum or mental institution.

Individuals behind bars in penal institutions prefer to be addressed as “prisoners” or “convicts.” The difference is subtle, but the latter terms do not connote subservience, someone completely at the mercy of their warders—which some men and women behind bars certainly are not.

Indeed, those who willingly go to prison over matters of conscience, such as the Berrigan brothers and other members of the Plowshares Movement, are routinely called “prisoners of conscience,” not “inmates of conscience.”

The feeling among the experienced members of this prison population is, “You've got my body, but you don't have my mind.” Again, the difference is subtle, but nonetheless real.

Inmates don't riot, convicts do.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander who serves as the executive director of Neighborhood Solutions, Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on myriad issues of importance to the urban community. A published author, he served as editor at a number of Cleveland weeklies before semi-retiring and changing over to Internet journalism in 2005. His column can currently be seen weekly on and The Cleveland Leader. He also occasionally contributes to The Daily Beast. Frazier is the co-publisher of Reentry Advocate, a magazine that currently goes into all Ohio prisons, select prisons in the State of Michigan, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons

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