“Stop talking to me like I’m some fuckin’ inmate!” I overheard my prison employer screaming into the phone receiver. He was replaying an encounter with another staff member to his friend and colleague.
I held one of the better jobs at Sing Sing prison, even though it didn’t pay much more than lint and a button. My employer was cool. Always treated me like a human being. But to hear him so vehemently oppose being treated like an “inmate” deepened my disgust at the word and my status as an incarcerated person.
I didn’t always detest that word. As life inside prison became my norm, I picked it up. Guards called us inmates and we called each other the same. Guys like me, who wore brand-new green uniforms denoting our recent entry into the system, didn’t think twice about referring to ourselves as inmates. The veterans with the faded green uniforms were either more politically conscious, in that they called themselves “prisoners,” or deeply identified with the 1970s persona of a “convict.”
I didn’t develop a thoughtful position on these labels until years later when I was elected chairman of the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC). The ILC is like a union for incarcerated people. It was my job to bring the prison population’s concerns to the administration and vice versa.
I would collect people’s opinions on an issue, then make decisions that benefited the majority — like replacing Hellman’s with off-brand mayonnaise in the commissary because the generic kind gave you more for your money.
My work with the ILC opened my eyes to the needs and desires of people I both liked and disliked, and it taught me to care about my fellow incarcerated people in a collective sense. Some people weren’t happy with my representation, but most were. The goal was to do what was best for everyone, even if they themselves didn’t realize it.
I developed the same rationale with the words we used to refer to one another. Guards, mostly White, tended to use the word “inmate” with implicit superiority. It didn’t matter that we knew we were in prison, no one wanted to internalize inferiority. And the majority of the population were people of color. Adding racism to the mix made the word even more suspect. It almost felt like the N-word.
Talking to people of all races in my New York state prison, I learned that most preferred “prisoner.” To us, it meant that we didn’t want to be caged, we thought freely, and we were prepared to stand up for what we believed in.
I admit this can be confusing because terminology is regional. In Mississippi, for instance, “politically conscious people refer to themselves as ‘convicts’” says Sheron Edwards, who is incarcerated at Chickasaw County Regional Facility. In Missouri, “incarcerated people call themselves ‘inmates’ or ‘offenders,’” according to Stacy Lynn Powell of Chillicothe Correctional Center.
Jonathan Gittens, who was an orientation facilitator in New York prisons before his release, told new arrivals a story to help them understand why “incarcerated people” is the most expansive term. He recently shared that lesson with me:
There were three men on a mess hall line. One called himself a “convict” based on his lifestyle. He knew what he was doing when he participated in his crime, and, needless to say, he was convicted.
Another man called himself a “prisoner” because of his political views. He went to trial and was convicted, but he didn’t consider himself a “convict.” He looked for every possible loophole in the justice system as he fought for his freedom on appeal.
The third called himself an “inmate.” He was convicted and sentenced to prison. All he was interested in was hanging out in the yard, playing cards and watching TV, and he had frequent access to drugs and pornography books.
A fourth person who was new to it all entered the conversation and asked, “What’s the best way to get the most out of prison?” The convict said, “Learn how to commit new and better crimes.” The prisoner said, “Work to right the wrongs of the system.” And the inmate said, “Just seek out a good time.”
The newcomer asked, “Is there anything you three can agree on?” All three said, “Yes, we are incarcerated people.”
I was struck by the simplicity of the three explanations. But my biggest takeaway was the “people” portion of their commonality. Everyone, whether they are imprisoned or not, is a person. Words like “inmate,” “prisoner,” “convict,” “felon” and “offender” are like brands. They reduce human beings to their crimes and cages.
I believe in calling people by their names. If I’m associating someone with prison, I use “incarcerated person” or “person in prison.” If someone is in jail, I call them “detained person” or “person in jail,” but “incarcerated person” can work here, too.
I understand these phrases can be repetitive and clunky for writers. But we have a responsibility to develop ways to describe people that don’t automatically stigmatize them.
Stigmas tend to use even the kindest among us as their unwitting weapons.
I had a taste of this seemingly benign dehumanization when I visited the prison 11 months after I was released. I felt a chill when the gate closed behind me, but my uneasiness was quickly erased by my excitement to see the fellas. I made a pit stop at the restroom. One door was for incarcerated people, another was for civilians and guards. I took a step toward the incarcerated bathroom out of habit, but the guard on duty stopped me, smiled, and said, “You can go into the civilian bathroom because you are a person now.”
I don’t think she was trying to be mean. I think her words were a result of conditioning rather than ill intent. But her comment hurt me because I was as much a person when I was incarcerated as I am now. It also meant that as long as my friends remain in her care, they will never be human beings to someone with control over their lives.
Lawrence Bartley is the founder and director of “News Inside,” the print publication of The Marshall Project which is distributed in hundreds of prisons and jails throughout the United States. News Inside is the recipient of the 2020 Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media. He is also an accomplished public speaker and has provided multimedia content for CNN, PBS, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC and more.