System-Impacted People

Prisoners dance in Filipino prison. Cebu City, 2008.

Last year I was moderating a panel discussion on prison writing when I heard the phrase “system-impacted people” for the first time.  The panellist objected to my use of the term “prisoners” and preferred this substitute.  The term’s shift in responsibility is striking.  It indicts society for crime rather than acknowledge any element of individual responsibility. 

It is indisputable that society generates crime, often ‘crimes’ that should not be counted as criminal offences.  Yet the ideological work of the term ‘system-impacted people’ lies in separating individuals from agency and their actions.  It generates excuses for unacceptable behaviours that harm and traumatise others, often grievously for a lifetime.  The term works as avoidance, nothing more.

The questions of prison-related language lie in a triangulation between human dignity, civil language, and accuracy.  The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison states as an organisational value, “Human Dignity: We believe in the unequivocal value of every person and the right to be treated equitably, without labels or stigmas.”  This is an excellent principle for teachers in a prison classroom, but unlikely to hold sway in society-at-large where questions arise about what constitutes equitable treatment or whether stigma is justified. What constitutes a derogatory versus a descriptive term is in the eyes of beholders informed by different experiences of crime. 

Human dignity and equitable treatment in education do not conflict with accurate language.  They do conflict with offensive, insulting terms.  But where and by whom does offence get taken?  That balance cannot lie with concealment, obfuscation, dishonesty, or denial.  Many who have left prison want to leave that personal history behind and it benefits society to use language practices, such as the term ‘returning citizens/residents’, to help them do so.  

At the same time, language choices can act as a smokescreen over past history or present status.  Dignity lies in honesty, not refusal to acknowledge criminal acts.   Terms such as ‘prisoner’ and ‘sex offender’ are straightforward, accurate, relatively neutral, and consonant with reality.  There are far worse and still-accurate terms available, such as ‘drug pusher,’ ‘child molester,’ or ‘rapist.’  We could push even further into dysphemism, the opposite of euphemism, but that would be unnecessary and lack dignity.  Simple terms will do.

A term such as ‘inmate’ does have problems.  Its etymological history begins in the late sixteenth century and derives from ‘inn-mate’, a co-resident lodger or boarder.  During the nineteenth century, as part of the turn towards so-called ‘scientific’ carceral practices, the term got extended to asylums and prisons.  The term applied to prisoners appears as early as the 1840s but received its popularisation in US criminological literature beginning in the 1870s.

The difficulty is less that ‘inmate’ refers to an institutional status, because ‘prisoner’ does the same.  Rather it is an increasingly archaic term that has incorporated mental asylums, prisons, juvenile homes, and other state institutions.  Since US legal and prison systems use this term, those on the outside concerned for prisons tend to limit use of the term to correspondence and speech where necessary for a common language with official bodies.        

Advocates for changed prison language face the anomalous contradiction of using the term ‘prisons’ while rejecting use of the word ‘prisoners’, as if one could exist without the other.  ‘Prisoner’ represents a status term, not objectification in its own right.  Prisons will objectify whatever the term used for prisoners.  The prison industry is itself a euphemism industry one that uses ‘Department of Corrections’ for prison systems that do not correct, ‘administrative segregation’ for solitary confinement, and ‘corrections officers’ for guards at human warehouses.    

The Center for NuLeadership in Urban Solutions in its prison language campaign urges that we “Use positive language in your writing, speeches, publications, web sites and literature.”  It emphasises use of the term ‘people,’ as in ‘people in prison’ or ‘people with criminal convictions.’  Victoria Law and Rachel Roth made a similar point in urging adoption of the term “people in prison or jail” in order to “emphasise personhood and humanity before locating that individual in an institution of punishment.” The Underground Scholars Initiative, UC Berkeley’s excellent prison re-entry program, recently issued its own language guide with similar phrases.

An emphasis on people can produce good phrases if it does not engage in concealment, but their use does not exclude other terms.  It remains a sad contradiction that phrases containing the social disfigurements of ‘criminal convictions’ or ‘prison’ could be deemed positive language.  Language that addresses the US carceral system inevitably is charged with negativism and language revision cannot change that.  Softened phrases can promote revisionist denial.  For one, I shall be calling George Bush, Dick Cheney, and company ‘war criminals’ and not ‘people accused of war crimes.’  Accuracy matters.    

Several months ago an academic lashed out at me online for using the term ‘imprisoned’ rather than ‘incarcerated’ in a book I co-edited, Prison Pedagogies: Learning and Teaching with Imprisoned Writers (with Sherry Rankins-Robertson). Using this term, she claimed, traded “in anachronism and euphemism”.  Either ‘imprisoned’ or ‘incarcerated’ is acceptable usage in this book title context, although ‘imprisoned’ provides a wider ambit that encompasses confinements beyond prisons.  What is striking is how linguistic prescription and pettiness operate to establish political righteousness and dividing lines of acceptability.      

These contests over terminology arise regularly within the outside-the-walls prison education community.  Preferred terminology often functions as a proxy for political categorisation.  A less-experienced writer who employs the term ‘inmate’ is scorned as uninitiated, unenlightened, or worse, a coopted stooge to power who uses the language of prison administrators. 

List discussions among prison teachers have considered speech codes aimed at journalists writing on prison issues.  Perhaps of most concern, prison teachers discuss speech codes aimed at finding sanction within their educational institutions.  The irony of advocating free speech for prisoners while proposing curbs outside prisons seems lost. 

It is not just a political superiority that is asserted, but an unacceptable claim to moral superiority through better and more humanistic terminology.  Preferred vocabulary becomes an attempt to shift any onus off of incarcerated people and onto those who use unapproved, less sympathetic terms.  The problem thus becomes claimed dehumanisation of prisoners and those who endorse it by speech acts. 

This shift of responsibility avoids the reality that the central issue lies with those who have committed criminal acts, not in terms describing their consequent status changes.  It refuses to address the realities of ‘I beat someone to death with an iron pipe, or ‘I raped a child,’ or ‘I stole a poor person’s savings and spent it on drugs.’  Concealment fools no one.  All it does is pose the question: what did they do?

Photograph courtesy of Leylander Romarate. Published under a Creative Commons license.