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Good Intentions Don’t Blunt the Impact of Dehumanizing Words

Of course not everyone means harm when they use prison labels. But that doesn’t make the language any less damaging.

When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons—all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us. ...We are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. PEOPLE currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE. —Eddie Ellis, “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.”

As a formerly incarcerated woman, I cringe every time I hear or read terms such as “inmate,” “ex-offender,” “prisoner” and “ex-convict.” These words are dehumanizing because, as previously incarcerated activist Eddie Ellis writes, “they identify us as ‘things’ rather than people.” Media outlets, legislators and the general public have the ability to choose different words. But people hold on to labels like “offender” to keep people like me in my place.

Maybe this would change if more people knew how it feels to have the word “offender” or “inmate” take the place of their name. For women, labels like these can become extensions of slurs like "bitch.” Research shows that the majority of women who are incarcerated have been victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and/or childhood abuse. This violence often contributes to the acts that land them behind bars. Prison labels can take you back to the feeling of powerlessness that abuse creates. In this way, you’re retraumatized and triggered.

Words like “criminal” and “convict” also serve to justify poor conditions in jails and prisons and make it OK to deny people basic needs after they are released. “Convicts” don’t deserve decent food, non-toxic facilities and quality medical care. “Criminals” shouldn’t expect to have necessities such as housing and employment.

In her work about “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” therapist, writer and educator Dr. Joy DeGruy explains how owners eased their conscience by casting the people they enslaved as less than human. She describes this phenomenon as removing cognitive dissonance. I believe a similar process is at work when people use prison language to define currently or formerly incarcerated individuals.

Of course, not everyone means harm when they use prison labels. But intentions don’t blunt the impact of dehumanizing words. For instance, I’ve encountered correctional staff members who recognize that not every person in a female facility identifies as a woman. In an attempt to be respectful of everyone’s gender identity, they use “inmate” instead of “Ms.” Therefore, “Ms. Jones” becomes “Inmate Jones.” This is not a bad idea in theory, but how do people who are incarcerated explain to officials that using “inmate” to respect their gender identity violates their humanity? Just say their names; that will resolve the issue.

Similarly, some members of the media want to raise awareness of criminal justice issues, but their word choice creates the opposite effect. I recently read an article online about a bill that would permanently restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. The writer supported the bill, but the term “ex-offenders” appeared in the title and text of his piece. I couldn’t focus on his points because all I could see was “ex-offenders” printed in big black letters.

Instead of fuming to myself, I wrote to him. I told him about the negative impact of the labels, provided him with alternatives and sent him a copy of Eddie Ellis’ open letter. Within half an hour, the reporter informed me that he had changed all dehumanizing words to people-first terms.

I took the time to write to this reporter because people with legal system involvement cannot move forward if we are negatively labeled for the rest of our lives. In general, I’ve committed to doing three things: Educating people about the issue, modeling the use of people-first language and gently correcting those who use dehumanizing language.

What will you do?

Lisette Bamenga holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and Spanish from Drew University and a master’s in education from Mercy College. She taught for close to a decade in New York City public schools. After her incarceration, Bamenga joined Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. As an academic coordinator, she manages the college program at a woman's correctional facility.