What is the worst thing you've ever done?
Imagine being known by that one mistake, regardless of what you've done to take responsibility or make amends. You have to write it on the top of every application for employment or housing you ever fill out—for the rest of your life.
Labels are powerful, and our society has plenty for people who have been through the criminal justice system and have the record to show for it: Felon. Offender. Convict. Criminal.
Inmate, too, carries a dark connotation. An inmate is just a number—identified by numbers on a uniform. Personhood is revoked. To call people offenders and convicts is to identify them by what they have done, not by their basic human dignity.
But why does it really matter what people with a criminal history are called? It turns out that the labels aren't a matter of semantics but of public safety.
A FACE TO THE NAME
The land of the free incarcerates more people than any country in the world—almost 2.2 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Ninety-five percent of those in state prisons will be released, facing widespread social stigma and legal restrictions that hinder them from giving back to society (check out some of the most outrageous ones here). And every year, prisons release 600,000 people back into their communities.
That's a lot of people to relegate to the fringes of society, even after their debt is paid. And dehumanizing labels only serve to stereotype and marginalize people, holding them back from building a future. The labels we give people have the power to change how they think about their identity and potential.
"When someone can never shake the label 'offender,' it's as if the time or work they put into paying their debt means nothing," says Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship®.
Prison Fellowship believes that all people have God-given value, dignity, and the capacity to change. People are not the sum of their worst choices. As an organization and as a community, we want our language to acknowledge people's full identities—to lend to a culture that helps people with a criminal record to make important contributions to society and live up to their God-given potential. And everybody's story is different.
ENDING A LIFE SENTENCE
Christopher Poulos' story took a turn for the worse in high school. First came the prescription drugs. Later it was cocaine, felony charges, and two and a half years in federal prison.
Battling addiction behind bars, he entered a recovery program and took steps to prepare for a productive life on the outside. Upon his release, he found a job, continued his recovery, and even went to law school, serving with task forces on addiction and criminal justice policy. He managed to pass the bar after an unusually lengthy and strenuous process and went on to serve as executive director at an addiction-treatment center.
But like many returning citizens written off as "ex-offenders" and "criminals," Chris faced roadblocks because of his felony record—a plight he compares to serving a life sentence.
"When other people identify me using strongly stigmatizing terms such as 'felon,' 'addict,' 'junkie,' 'drug abuser,' or 'convict,' it immediately places me in the category of being 'other,'" says Christopher. "Putting 'ex-' in front of any of those terms does not effectively mitigate the harm. I can't speak for others, but I imagine that for some people … stigmatizing language has similar effects on them that it has had on me. I have seen a lot of people put themselves in a box, limiting their own future potential, because of their pasts."
Gina Evans has found this to be true throughout her recovery journey, too. The Minnesota mom found freedom from meth addiction and now works at a rehab and recovery center to help others find healing from life-controlling issues.
Once you have that scarlet letter on your forehead that says 'Felon,' everything becomes difficult.
But God brought me through all the things I've been through for such a time as this … to bring hope and help to others. My kids have their mom back, my mom has her daughter back.
Language has the power to reinforce our perceptions, for good or for bad. Thoughtful language should reflect people’s full identities and recognize their capacity to grow and change. Our words can afford dignity to men and women with a past who want to reclaim their identity as people.
Not "junkies" or "addicts," but people who struggle with addiction.
Not "offenders" or "convicts," but incarcerated men and women.
Not "ex-cons" or "criminals," but returning citizens.
TEARING OFF NAMETAGS
The way we label people informs the way we treat them during their incarceration and after their release. If we see those who break the law as criminals, offenders, and nothing more, we are less inclined to invest in their rehabilitation and restoration. In prison and out, derogatory labels can erode a person's sense of belonging.
Can I ever be part of the community? Do I have something to contribute? Am I important?
And what people believe about themselves will impact each step of the the journey forward.
Person-first language fosters a culture of hope. This holds true for the incarcerated men and women who are trying to change and for the healing process of those who have suffered because of crime. That's why some people prefer "survivor" instead of "victim," or drop the label altogether to say "harmed party" or "person who has been harmed by crime."
Mindful language allows people to reclaim their true identities—wherever they are on their journey.
A correctionals officer once wondered how the women under her supervision would like to be known. If it were up to them, how might they be called? She asked, and the group offered various answers—inmate, prisoner, resident.
Then the corrections officer said, "What about just 'woman'?"
They all acted surprised. They hadn't even considered that one.
"You may be a man or woman in prison today," says Heather Rice-Minus, "but we are all sons and daughters together at the foot of the cross. Your identity is a child of God. You are capable, through Christ, of transformation. Our worst days do not define us. … This is not about ignoring the crime and what the person owes for that wrong—it's about holding people accountable, while recognizing that there is nothing any of us can do to separate us from the love of God and the human dignity He bestowed upon each of us."
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."
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