Words Matter: Don’t Call People Felons, Prisoners, Or Inmates

Forbes: Erica Bryant and Raf Jefferson | August 16, 2021


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 But many others—most notably politicians and media outlets—still use harmful and outdated language like “convict,” “inmate,” “felon,” “prisoner,” and “illegal immigrant.”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.


To read the full article and learn the options, click here.