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The Language Project

Reporters and editors have long believed that terms such as “inmate,” “felon” and “offender” are clear, succinct and neutral. But a vocal segment of people affected by the criminal justice system argue that these words — and any other words that define human beings by their crimes and punishments — are dehumanizing.

The Marshall Project occupies a unique space in criminal justice reporting. We are not an advocacy organization, but we are committed to sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. As a result, fellow journalists often ask us about our style and standards around the language of criminal justice, and activists we meet frequently confront us about our usage of words such as “inmate.”

The Marshall Project began addressing this issue in 2015, our second year of existence, but we did not make a decision to change our style guide. Since then, through our deepening engagement with formerly and currently incarcerated people, we have realized the urgency of examining and articulating the language we use.

The Language Project serves three purposes. First, through a series of powerful pieces by and about people with intimate experience with incarceration, we show the human impact of the words we choose. Second, our guide, “What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration,” makes public our decision to avoid labels such as “inmate,” in favor of language that follows the logic of “person-first” language. Third, we provide alternatives to the labels.

At its heart, journalism is a discipline of clarity. The Language Project is our attempt to set the record straight.

I Am Not Your ‘Inmate’

I didn’t always detest this term. But hearing officers use it as an insult reminded me to call incarcerated people — including myself — by our names.

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.

I Was Trained to Call Men a Word They Hated

As correctional officers, we are conditioned to call prisoners ‘inmates.’ But at Sing Sing, where I worked for 25 years, that was as bad as calling them a snitch.

People-First Language Matters. So Does the Rest of the Story.

While we have to be aware that any word we choose has influence, no amount of Googling will reveal the magic word that brings justice into American prisons.

How I Convinced My Incarcerated Peers to Make Language a Priority

Rahsaan Thomas, an imprisoned journalist, has long fought to change the way outside media describe people in prison. One of his toughest crowds? His fellow reporters.

What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration

Journalism is a discipline of clarity. That’s why we’ve solidified our policy about how we talk about people who are currently in or have previously been in prison and jail.

Before you go...

Can you help us make a difference?

The Marshall Project produces journalism that makes an impact. Our investigation into violence using police dogs prompted departments from Indiana to Louisiana to change their policies. Thousands of cameras were installed in the infamous Attica prison after we revealed the extent of violent abuse by guards. Municipalities stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration because of our reporting. Supreme Court justices have cited us, along with incarcerated people acting as their own lawyers.

The type of reporting we practice takes persistence, skill and, above all, time, which is why we need your support. Thanks to generous readers like you, The Marshall Project has already raised just over $60,000 of our $100,000 goal during our year-end campaign. The funds we raise now are going to be essential to sustaining this important work. We’ve still got a long way to go to reach our goal, though.

To help us get there, a generous group of donors will be matching all new donations. They’ve pledged $100,000 in matching funds and are matching donations dollar-for-dollar until our December 31 deadline. Will you join The Marshall Project today and double the impact of your donation?

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