As correctional officers, our training tells us to call prisoners “inmates.” I can’t really tell you why. I just know they train us in New York state to use that word.
But when I started at Sing Sing Correctional Facility 25 years ago, I had a lot of neighborhood friends who were incarcerated there. We grew up together in Hollis, Queens, so they knew me by my last name. When it came to what to call them, I did the same.
Besides, calling someone an “inmate” at Sing Sing is just as bad as calling them a snitch. “Inmates” supposedly do favors for correctional officers and tell them about the wrongdoings of others. Some prisoners also use “inmate” to imply that someone is “mating” with another prisoner. It’s a derogatory reference to homosexuality.
I found that most of the men preferred to be called “prisoners,” although a few favored “convict.” “Prisoners” and “convicts” were the people who kept to themselves rather than pandering to C.O.s. Some men even made a point to approach me and tell me which term they preferred. To me, “prisoner” and “convict” are just different words for “inmate,” but being that the men talked to me about it, I respected their wishes. I usually called them by their names anyway.
For the most part, the only time we C.O.s called the men “inmates” was when we were communicating with each other. We’d say, “Well, I was with this inmate…” We wouldn't say, “Hey inmate!” or “Yo inmate, do that!” We wouldn't call them out like that.
Of course, some officers didn’t care. They felt like, “If you an inmate, you an ‘inmate.’” Some C.O.s would call prisoners “inmates” just to piss them off. It was a power struggle. A guy would tell them, “Well, you know I'm not an inmate, I’m a prisoner.” The officer would respond, “I’ll call you anything I want to call you, inmate.”
You know what else I heard a lot? Black prisoners would tell me that some of the White C.O.s would call them “boy.” They would say things like, “Come here, boy,” which is almost like calling them the n-word. Those C.O.s never did that around me because I'm Black and I would’ve let them know. They would do it in private, when Black officers weren’t around. But I didn’t approach any of those C.O.s about what I’d heard because I had to work with them. I wanted to keep the peace.
Insulting prisoners wasn’t safe or smart in the housing unit where I worked. There was only one officer per gallery, so I was up there by myself trying to run housing for maybe a hundred-something people. Calling the prisoners “inmates” would create problems. Using their names tended to de-escalate problems. The state gave them name tags for that reason.
Being respectful also benefited me in another way. At one point I was going to school while I was working at Sing Sing. I took the same Hudson Link classes that prisoners did, through Mercy College. I got to know a lot of them, and all they wanted was to do their time and get out. Some even helped me with my classes. I was really appreciative when I graduated. I had respect for them, and for that, they looked out for me.
Kevin Byrd was a correctional officer in New York state prisons for 25 years. He retired in 2019.