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Rethinking the Words We Use To Describe People In the Criminal Justice System

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The sheriff in Dane County, Wisconsin recently announced he will no longer refer to people in his custody as inmates. (Photo: Inventorchris/CC BY-NC)

A sheriff in Wisconsin says he will stop referring to people in his custody as inmates. It’s a decision that many media organizations and advocates have already made in an effort to humanize people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett said he made the decision after talking with people who were formerly incarcerated who said being labeled with words like “convict” created barriers for them as they transitioned back into their communities.

Barrett said he’ll now refer to individuals in his custody as “residents” or “those within our care.”

In 2015, The Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice publication, began exploring the way language impacts people who are involved in the criminal justice system and also how words impact the way society and policy makers view those people. The organization determined that words like “inmate,” “felon,” and “offender” have been used to “define human beings by their crimes and punishments,” and  developed a policy of eliminating those words from their reporting.

The organization also cited data from The Prison Policy Initiative that found 74% of people who are in jails have not been convicted of a crime -- meaning words like “offender” or “convict” are neither precise nor accurate.

The ACLU of Virginia applauded the Madison, WI area sheriff for the policy change. 

“ACLU of Virginia has always been a proponent of not defining people by their circumstances.  People in prison and jails should not be defined by their circumstances,” said Edith Bullard, director of communications. “Language is powerful. For too long the carceral system has viewed incarcerated people as statistics not as humans and any action that changes that paradigm is a step in the right direction.”

John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, said conversations around the language used to describe people in jail or prison or who are transitioning out of the system  have not “bubbled up as an issue.” But he says state law often refers to incarcerated people as “prisoners,” a word that’s  still largely accepted by advocates and used in news publications.

He said staff often use the terms  residents, clients and patients in addition to inmates.

VPM has an informal policy of using people-first language in all reporting, informed by the work of experts and the lived experiences of people impacted by reporting.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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