Why language matters

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

Using derogatory terms for incarcerated persons only makes matters worse

We are all human beings but are often not all viewed as such. If you are a “criminal,” an “inmate,” an “offender” or a “convict,” your identity has been stripped of all of its humanity.

You are now viewed as less than — less than deserving of respect, dignity, compassion and opportunities. Compacted with the intersections of race and or sex, we have created a caste system in America where those Black or Brown and incarcerated are extremely restricted in their ability to fully participate in society.

There is a movement happening across the country to remove the use of the words criminal, inmate, offender and convict from our language. By no means am I saying that the removal of these terms from our everyday life is the only solution to reshaping incarceration in America. However, there is importance in reframing language in tandem with social movements.

Many Americans have relied on the narrative that hard work is the backbone of our society. America is not only the “land of the free” but the “home of the brave” where anyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps. If we are to accept this narrative as being the landscape of America, then how do we leave space for incarcerated individuals to transcend their “transgressions”?

While the Department of Corrections (DOC) believes that it is operating with the goal of incarceration as rehabilitation, the reality of this goal seems at odds with our language of those currently and formerly incarcerated. If rehabilitation is truly the goal, then we need to remove barriers to employment and housing that continue to punish those who we have deemed unworthy of compassion, dignity, and opportunities.

Re-entry needs to be something that is incorporated into how the DOC treats those currently incarcerated while they are serving their time, and not just weeks before persons are released. That starts with resisting the need to demonize those who are incarcerated.


Octavia Smith is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.