Use Human Language
I remember when I first heard the term “inmate.” It was used to describe me.
I was 22 years old and had arrived at the NYS Department of Corrections’ Downstate Correctional Facility. I was at the beginning of an eight-year sentence. And I recall feeling violated. It was the first time in my life that someone used a term – to my face – to describe me in a way that dehumanized me on so many levels. I didn’t know how to react.
I battled internally with how to deal with those emotions inside of a system that didn’t provide me with the adequate resources and outlets to vent my feelings. Then one day I heard my future mentor, Eddie Ellis, on the radio asking for those who are incarcerated to begin to humanize the way that we describe ourselves. He urged us to move away from the terms “inmate” and “prisoner” and “convict” and so on, because language, he explained, shapes ideas, beliefs, and ultimately actions. Negative language = negative ideas = negative actions. At that moment, I committed to never accept a term that was placed on me that devalued my humanness. Not only was my well-being dependent on it, my family and community’s was as well. The use of any term that does not recognize the humanity of any individual is one that serves to reinforce negative and dehumanizing stereotypes. The aging population, children with developmental delays, people with substance-use histories, undocumented men and women, and even veterans have all benefited from the use of proper terms when addressing them and describing their issues. Yet, when it comes to the incarcerated population, we as country -- and even some advocates -- still use dehumanizing language when describing people who are incarcerated.
Therefore, I urge you and your readers, as Eddie urged me -- use human language.