Words Matter: Don’t Call People Felons, Prisoners, Or Inmates
By Erica Bryant, Senior Writer, and Raf Jefferson, Vice President, Communications and External Affairs, Vera Institute of Justice
Throughout history and across the world, dehumanizing language has facilitated the systemic, inhumane treatment of groups of people. This is certainly the case for people impacted by the U.S. criminal legal and immigration systems.
Now, many people and organizations are moving away from using terms that objectify and make people’s involvement with these systems the defining feature of their identities. But many others—most notably politicians and media outlets—still use harmful and outdated language like “convict,” “inmate,” “felon,” “prisoner,” and “illegal immigrant.” The dehumanizing effect is multiplied after centuries of implicit bias, and racist notions that teach us who we should fear as somehow inherently criminal.
When Jerome R. Wright was incarcerated, corrections officers called him by his identification number instead of his name. “The minute you are arrested, the language begins to be totally derogatory, debasing, and dehumanizing,” said Wright, statewide organizer for the #HALTsolitary Campaign in New York.
There are better alternatives—alternatives that center a person’s humanity first, unpack racist narratives of criminality, and help address the overcriminalization of people of color and the crisis of mass incarceration. These include “person who was convicted of a crime,” “person who is incarcerated,” “person convicted of a felony,” and “person seeking lawful status.” These words and phrases matter. Eddie Ellis, a prison reformer and the founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing, was a pioneer in pushing for humanizing language. “Calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be,” he wrote in an 2006 open letter. There are better options.
- Illegal immigrant
- Illegal alien
- Person convicted of a crime
- Person who was convicted of a felony
- Person who is on parole
- Person who is incarcerated
- Person seeking lawful status
- Person without lawful status
- Person in immigration detention
Calling a person who was convicted of a crime a “criminal,” “felon,” or “offender” defines them only by a past act and does not account for their full humanity or leave space for growth. These words also stoke fear and promote dangerous stereotypes, stigmatizing people who have been convicted of crimes and making it harder for them to thrive. That’s why it’s so important to use language that actively asserts humanity.
“Until this carceral state and the people of this country begin to understand the power of the words that seek to dehumanize the incarcerated or justice-impacted people, there will never be a real and substantive conversation about criminal justice reform,” said Wright. “Our humanity is maintained and respected by not referring to us in those impersonal and definitive terms, but by acknowledging our intrinsic value as human and not by defining us by the worst day or act in our lives.”
Some institutions have created policies to combat dehumanizing language. The New York City Council, for example, no longer allows city correction officers to refer to people in jails as “packages” or “bodies.” And the Biden administration has directed U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials to stop using “alien” and “illegal alien” to refer to people without immigration documents.
But unfortunately, dehumanizing words figure prominently in headlines, political speeches, and everyday language. A 2021 study of news media found more than 10,000 articles published in 2020 that included the terms “felon,” “inmate,” or “offender.” People-first language was used in only 480 articles in the same period. Meanwhile, two national surveys conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group show that people exposed to the use of dehumanizing language to describe people involved with the criminal legal system are considerably more likely to express negative views about them and are less likely to support policy changes aimed at reducing incarceration or increasing post-incarceration opportunities.
Language is powerful. It shapes thoughts and attitudes, and it can have a serious effect on how a society sees and treats groups of people. People who are impacted by the criminal legal and immigration systems are too often denied their dignity. Choosing people-first language is a step toward asserting the dignity of those entangled in dehumanizing systems. We can all work to show them respect by using language that asserts their humanity.
As Wright said, “If you can’t see me as [a] human being, then you will never treat me as a human being. And I can never escape the parameters of the system.”