The words we use to describe people being held in correctional facilities are among the most controversial in journalism. Reporters, editors and criminal justice professionals have long assumed that terms such as “inmate,” “felon” and “offender” are clear, succinct and neutral. But a vocal segment of people within or directly affected by the criminal justice system argue that these words narrowly — and permanently — define human beings by their crimes and punishments.
The Marshall Project began addressing this issue in 2015, our second year of existence. We asked readers to fill out a questionnaire about their preferred terms, published the beginnings of a style guidance on these words and participated in a 2019 forum at San Quentin State Prison led by incarcerated journalist and Marshall Project contributor Rahsaan Thomas. However, we did not make a concrete decision about which words we would and would not use.
Now we have.
Through our continued engagement with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated readers, we have come to understand that these descriptors are not neutral. “Inmate” is the most contested. People routinely send us letters, post comments on social media and confront us in the field to tell us they find the word dehumanizing. We have learned that in some U.S. prisons, calling someone an “inmate” is tantamount to calling them “a snitch,” or even the n-word. (See “I Am Not Your Inmate” by News Inside Director Lawrence Bartley.)
We also acknowledge that, as a digital media outlet, the language we use has outsized power over the people we cover. When we write about a private citizen, our article is often among the first results of an internet search of their name. The stigma and material consequences of incarceration are so deep that what seems like a basic descriptor to journalists becomes a permanent, potentially life-altering label.
Seventy-four percent of people held in jails have not been convicted of a crime. Technically speaking, these people are “inmates” because of their physical location. But “inmate” is dangerously imprecise because it is widely perceived as an assignment of guilt.
Journalism is a discipline of clarity. If a segment of our audience reads a particular word as a slur or suggestion of guilt, that word becomes an unnecessary distraction from our actual work. Given the systemic racism and classism embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system, language about incarceration places an undue burden on people of color and poor people.
Finally, we have at least some evidence of what terms our readers prefer. Of the more than 200 people who filled out our questionnaire, 38% chose “incarcerated person,” 23% chose “prisoner” and only 10% picked “inmate.” Notably, 30% selected “other,” which encompasses “person in prison,” “man or woman” or an individual name.
For these reasons, The Marshall Project has developed a policy based on the logic of “people-first” language. Originally developed by people with disabilities, people-first language avoids turning one aspect of a person’s life into an all-encompassing label.
It’s important to note that our policy is not an attempt to exonerate anyone or minimize the impact of crime on people victimized by it. It is designed to promote precision and accuracy and to convey the humanity of people who are routinely dehumanized by the media and society. Here are the specifics:
We do not call people confined in correctional facilities “inmates” or “convicts.” We use constructions that include “person” or “people,” a subject’s name and/or fixed biographical characteristics like age or state. Examples:
“people in prison”
“people in jail”
“people jailed in X facility.”
“formerly incarcerated people”
“John Doe, who was incarcerated at FCI Memphis...”
“Jane Doe, who is serving 12 years in San Quentin State Prison…”
“Held in Rikers Island Jail for three years without a trial, Kalief Browder...”
“A 34-year-old detained in Los Angeles County Jail…”
“Imprisoned in 1989, Joe Doe has filed an appeal.”
We apply the same logic to “felon,” “offender,” “sex offender,” “offense,” “parolee” and “probationer.”
“Jane Doe was convicted of felony robbery.”
“John Doe is registered as a sex offender in Iowa...”
“Joe Doe was on trial for criminal loitering, a low-level offense.”
“Jane Doe was placed on probation in June.”
“On parole in New Mexico, John Doe…”
In the interest of brevity, particularly in headlines, we’ve made exceptions for “prisoner” and “prisoners” when referring to people in prison. Although many advocates would disagree, we have found that “prisoner” is considerably less fraught than the aforementioned terms. In popular usage, “prisoner” conveys a physical or mental state of being rather than an identity.
We do not change terms of incarceration in quotes, personal essays or as-told-to essays. We must accurately reflect how interview subjects and essayists think and speak.
As with all style rules, these are fluid. Language evolves and we will respond as it changes. As we do so, we will be guided by people-first principles and the journalistic duties of clarity and avoiding euphemism. For example, we do not use “returning citizen.” While the term resonates with many of the formerly incarcerated people we encounter, it is unclear in multiple contexts, including immigration status and nationality.
We will apply this policy to all of our work moving forward and invite other publications to reevaluate the language that they use to describe incarceration.