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Language Matters: Why We Use the Words We Do

by Paul Wright


Recent years have seen efforts by a lot of well-meaning people referring to prisoners as “people in prison” or “incarcerated people,” former prisoners as “returning citizens,” “formerly incarcerated people” and more. Pretty much since we started publishing PLN in 1990 we have used the terms prisoners, guards, prisons, jails, ex or former prisoner, etc. In the October 1993 issue of PLN we published an article by Ojore Lutalo, titled Some Food for Thought: Prisoners Are Not Inmates that pretty much set forth our reasoning. Almost 30 years later it is probably time to address the matter again.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica massacre which was second largest massacre of people on American soil in the 20th century by government forces. It also ushered in the modern era of prison and penal reform which saw the courts abandon their “hands off” doctrine and begin to enforce the constitution behind bars. In many ways, the government gave up a little bit to keep a lot when it came to its power to control, abuse, oppress and exploit prisoners.

One of the biggest changes was the change in language it used to refer to its detention facilities. Convicts and prisoners became “inmates” which had been used to refer to patients in psychiatric facilities with the implication that inmates are being helped. Prisons and penitentiaries became correctional centers, implying people were being corrected. Guards became correctional officers implying both a parity with police in terms of social ranking and that people were somehow being corrected. The wardens became superintendents and prisons generally became much more bureaucratized. Yet the core violent, brutal nature of the institutions themselves did not change.

Recent years have seen a number of people seek to change how current and former prisoners are referred to, especially in media. My friend and long-time prisoner rights advocate Eddie Ellis was one of the proponents of this trend (I think he started it actually) and I think this is one of the few things we disagreed on and eventually agreed to disagree about.

Rather than being people centric, this approach is really an excuse for state violence and hides the daily brutality and dehumanization of the police state, just as enhanced interrogation becomes a euphemism for torture, collateral damage a euphemism for killing innocent civilians, etc. We should make no mistake about it: people are forced into cages at gun point and kept there upon pain of death should they try to leave. What are they if not prisoners? They did not somehow magically appear there and they stay there based on violence and fear of violence, not some invisible force field. Free will is critical, yet it doesn’t exist in the prison context.

There is such a thing as objective reality but subjective personal experiences also shape perceptions and the use of language. In 1987, I was arrested by some 20 local and military police officers who threatened to blow my brains onto the floor with a shotgun if I resisted. I did not. For the next 17 years I was kept in a variety of maximum-security prisons surrounded by high walls, razor wire and towers with armed guards, all of whom had sworn an oath to kill me if I tried to leave without the government’s permission. I felt I was very much a prisoner and had no choice in my captivity. Millions of people around the world are in the same boat of involuntary confinement. Prisoner and detainee are accurate terms to describe them.

Returning citizen seems to be another disjointed term used to refer to both former prisoners and convicted felons, which is inaccurate at several levels. The vast majority of convicted felons or misdemeanants are never imprisoned and thus never leave their community. In a mobile society, not everyone returns to the same place but it also calls into question what citizen actually means. Until I went to prison I had never: written an article that was published before, published a magazine, filed a lawsuit, lobbied the legislature and the governor’s office, corresponded with and met with legislators, corresponded with judges, done radio, TV and newspaper interviews on issues of public importance, donated money to a political organization, organized strikes and boycotts, signed a petition, and more. These may well be all the hallmarks of an active and engaged citizen, the vast majority of US citizens who have never been to prison have not done a single one of these things, much less all of them.

The rise of the GLBT movement has seen importance attached to the pronouns people use. These days there are few virtual events that I attend among advocates where people don’t introduce themselves by their name, the organization they belong to and the pronouns they wish to be referred to by. Asking prisoners and ex-prisoners how they want to be referred to allows a degree of agency and self determination that is otherwise denied. Some people are fine with inmate, formerly incarcerated person (FIP), person in prison, etc. Others are not. To the extent language has meaning, let’s not give police state violence a pass. Let’s call it what it is.

Editorially, PLN will continue to refer to prisoners and detainees, guards, prisons, etc., unless we are quoting someone who uses a different term. The people who have referred to themselves as prisoners include Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Jack London and many others. If prisoner was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. 

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