I once read an article about an “inmate firefighter” ineligible for compensation because he was incarcerated. The piece highlighted his heroism and argued that people should be paid for such dangerous work, regardless of their imprisonment. But the piece missed the point. The system devalued this hero because he was considered an “inmate” rather than a human being with an identity, history, family or community. The word choice reinforced the very trope the story attempted to challenge.
I know that journalists can do better because I’m one myself. At San Quentin State Prison, where I am serving multiple life sentences, I serve as the chairman of a satellite chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for Northern California (SQ-SPJ). I also co-host the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Ear Hustle” podcast, and I co-founded the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a program that pairs imprisoned scribes with volunteer reporters on the outside.
I don’t argue that other journalists should refer to me as a “person in prison” because I’m an angel who deserves steak dinners delivered to my cell. I do it because labels invite people telling our stories to obscure the complexity of crime. Sometimes human beings do horrible things, particularly in response to violence, trauma, shame, poverty, racism and other forms of oppression.
Almost every mass destruction of an oppressed group starts with those in power using language to strip group members of their humanity. Once you aren’t considered human, your life isn’t valued. Take the nearly 150 women incarcerated in California prisons who, between 2016 and 2010, were coerced into sterilization by doctors on contract. Atrocious acts like that don’t happen to “soccer moms.” They happen to “inmates” and “criminals.”
And despite ongoing debate over the concept of journalistic objectivity, I still believe it’s a journalist’s duty to use unbiased language. Terms like “inmate” are not objective. They are jargon that corrections officers use to desensitize themselves to seeing two “inmates” living in a cell the size of a kettle. A C.O. who is fair or friendly to incarcerated people gets branded an “inmate-lover.” (What does that remind you of?)
“Prisoner” isn’t objective, either. Like “inmate,” “prisoner” comes preloaded with a specific narrative. In this case it conveys a bias toward incarcerated people because it suggests that they are “political prisoners” or “prisoners of war.” I use the occasional “prisoner” as a civilian but never as a journalist.
In 2019, in an effort to do something about this issue, I decided to hold a symposium at San Quentin. I wanted SQ-SPJ to invite outside journalists into the prison to discuss their coverage of system-affected people. But first I had to convince SQ-SPJ members that it was worth our time; many of the men had no problem labeling themselves.
Everything came to a head in a fall 2019 meeting. In a small room with studio lighting and iMacs along a wall, 15 incarcerated journalists and three sponsors sat in a circle.
“I think we should conduct a survey on the yard to see what they want to be called,” said Tim, a stocky San Quentin News reporter from Oakland.
“It’s not about a survey,” I retorted. “It’s about living up to the principle of professional journalists to minimize harm. The word ‘inmate’ does harm.”
“That’s your opinion,” said Juan, an incarcerated freelance journalist and senior editor of San Quentin News. He supported using “inmate” when “incarcerated person” was too long for headlines and text.
I wanted to say, “We are worth the extra letters,” but I shot back, “This is a matter of behavioral science and testimonial evidence.” I had read “The Lucifer Effect” by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, which describes how ordinary people become capable of mistreating others who they don’t view as human.
“What are we, pansies?” demanded L.A., a bald older man. “It doesn’t matter what people call us. Plus, we need to honor our victims instead of demanding to be called ‘incarcerated people.’”
“We are not our crimes and shouldn’t be labeled by where we live because of our crimes,” I replied. “If we remain ‘inmates’ how will anybody see our changes?”
Out of the 14 other incarcerated men in the room, eight persisted in arguing with me. I switched tactics. “The word ‘inmate’ insults the O.G.’s,” I said, knowing that older guys hate the term. But L.A. hijacked my argument by addressing a man who had been in prison for 45 years. “O.G., you’ve been incarcerated longer than anybody in this room. What’s your perspective?”
“An ‘inmate’ is a slave and a snitch,” said the O.G., who had spent about half his years in the hole at Pelican Bay. Although we were indoors, he wore a wool hat, dark shades and a three-quarter length jean jacket. “It’s a mentality. A ‘convict’ lives on ethics, morals and scruples. ‘Inmates’ don’t.” Pointing to the door, he added, “You see them running around here? Those are inmates. I’m a convict.”
I understood that the O.G. thought “convict” was a way to convey his principles, but I didn’t agree with that label either. “Convict” still reduces you to your crime.
L.A. spoke up again: “I don’t care about the terms because I broke societal norms and I belong in prison,” he said as if the parole board was listening. “I’m more concerned with how my victim would view me than what journalists should call people in prison.”
“I’m telling you, we should hold a survey,” Tim reasserted. I sighed. A survey wouldn’t educate anyone. Men on the yard would probably pick the word on our uniforms: “prisoner.”
At that point, Sandhya, an audio journalist and sponsor, walked over to the whiteboard. “It’s not about a survey. It’s more about what we as journalists believe is the correct language. For years the media used ‘illegal aliens.’” She wrote those words on the board and continued, “Then we realized it made it sound like people’s existence was illegal, and most of us started using ‘undocumented.’ There was no survey asking immigrants what they wanted to be called.”
Tony, another audio journalist and SQ-SPJ sponsor, chimed in. “If I’m writing a story, I’m probably going to use ‘incarcerated person’ because that speaks to the humanity of the person.”
“So let’s vote!” I said. “If you don’t care what term the media uses to describe you, raise your hand.”
Five hands went up.
“If you believe the media should refer to you as an ‘incarcerated person,’ raise your hand.”
Nine hands went up, and mine made 10. Finally, we had the votes.
A week later, I submitted my proposal for the symposium to a lieutenant, captain and warden. I received the final signature on January 29, 2020. We were all set to change the world on April 25.
Then on March 18, I heard, “Attention, all inmates: institutional recall.”
The announcement meant that we had to shelter-in-cell due to the coronavirus. The media center was closed indefinitely, and the symposium canceled. For days, I watched TV reporters tell our story while calling us “inmates” and detailing our crimes.
Advocates warned that unless the system reduced its population, prisons would be the epicenter of outbreaks. But California officials refused to release “inmates” convicted of violent crimes, even if they hadn’t committed another such crime in over 20 years.
San Quentin went without any confirmed cases for the first three months of the pandemic. But in late May, the state department of corrections transferred 121 men here from the California Institution for Men in Chino, which had 450 cases. The men tested negative before leaving, but the results were old. Upon arrival, 25 men from Chino tested positive.
On June 12, health experts toured our poorly ventilated cell blocks and reported that San Quentin would need to release 50% of its population to get ahead of the outbreak. Prison officials ignored them.
To date, COVID-19 has infected over 2,400 human beings in San Quentin — including me. While mostly well-meaning reporters continue to call us “inmates,” the virus has taken 29 lives.
I knew some of the men who died. They weren’t “inmates.” They were good people left to die in an overcrowded cellblock.
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is the co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast “Ear Hustle” and the co-founder of Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort. Thomas is also a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News. He is currently incarcerated for murder.