What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?
Now imagine being known by that one mistake ― regardless of what you’ve done to take responsibility or make amends. You have to write it on the top of every application for employment or housing you ever fill out—for the rest of your life.
Labels are powerful, and our society has plenty for people who have been through the criminal justice system and have the record to show for it: Felon. Offender. Convict. Criminal.
Even inmate casts a dark shadow in its rightful context. An inmate is just a number ― identified by numbers on a uniform. Personhood is revoked. When we call people offenders and convicts, we identify them by what they have done, not by their basic human dignity.
But why does it really matter what people with a criminal history are called? It turns out that the labels aren’t primarily a matter of political correctness, but of public safety.
A FACE TO THE NAME
The land of the free incarcerates more people than any country in the world ― almost 2.2 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Ninety-five percent of those in state prisons will be released, facing widespread social stigma and legal restrictions that hinder them from giving back to society (check out some of the most outrageous ones here). And every year, prisons release 600,000 people back into their communities.
That’s a lot of people to relegate to the fringes of society, even after their debt is paid. And the labels we give them have the power to change how they think about themselves and their potential.
“When someone can never shake the label ‘offender,’ it’s as if the time or work they put into paying their debt means nothing,” says Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship.
Prison Fellowship holds to the belief that all people have God-given value, dignity, and the potential to change. People are not the sum of their worst choices. As an organization and as a community, we want our language to reflect that ― to lend to a culture that helps people with a criminal record in making important contributions to society and living up to their God-given potential. And everybody’s story is different.
Randy Anderson, who served time in prison on drug charges, now works as an addiction counselor at the same facility where he began his journey to recovery. Read more of his story here.
Christopher Poulos’ story took a turn in high school. First came the prescription drugs. Later it was cocaine, felony charges, and two and a half years in federal prison.
Grappling with addiction behind bars, he entered a recovery program and took every step to prepare for a productive life on the outside. Upon his release, he found a job, continued his recovery, and even went to law school, serving with task forces on addiction and criminal justice policy. He managed to pass the bar after an unusually lengthy and strenuous process, and today he serves as executive director at an addiction-treatment center.
But like hordes of other returning citizens written off as “ex-offenders” and “criminals,” Christopher faced roadblocks because of his felony record ― a plight he compares to serving a life sentence.
“When other people identify me using strongly stigmatizing terms such as ‘felon,’ ‘addict,’ ‘junkie,’ ‘drug abuser,’ or ‘convict,’ it immediately places me in the category of being ‘other,’” says Christopher. “Putting ‘ex-’ in front of any of those terms does not effectively mitigate the harm. I can’t speak for others, but I imagine that for some people... stigmatizing language has similar effects on them that it has had on me. I have seen a lot of people put themselves in a box, limiting their own future potential, because of their pasts.”
Gina Evans has found this to be true throughout her recovery journey, too. The Minnesota mom found freedom from meth addiction and now works at a rehab and recovery center to help others find healing from life-controlling issues.
“Once you have that scarlet letter on your forehead that says ‘Felon,’ everything becomes difficult,” says Evans. “But God brought me through all the things I’ve been through for such a time as this … to bring hope and help to others. My kids have their mom back, my mom has her daughter back.”
Thoughtful language is about recognizing the perceptions that language so powerfully reinforces, for good or for bad. It’s about affording dignity to those who wish to reclaim their identity as people.
Not “junkies” or “addicts,” but people who struggle with addiction.
Not “offenders” or “convicts,” but incarcerated men and women.
Not “ex-cons” or “criminals,” but returning citizens.
TEARING OFF NAMETAGS
How we label people directly affects how we choose to invest in them during their incarceration and after their release. If we see those who break the law as criminals, offenders, and nothing more, we are less inclined to believe in their capability to change. The same labels affect the way people with a criminal record view themselves.
They wonder, “Can I ever be part of the community? Do I have something to contribute? Am I important?”
And what they believe about themselves will affect how they approach the journey forward.
Language contributes to a culture of hope. Poor terminology can have a negative effect, not just on the incarcerated men and women who are trying to change, but on the healing process of those who have suffered because of crime. That’s why some people prefer “survivor” instead of “victim,” or drop the label altogether to say “harmed party” or “person who has been harmed by crime.”
It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about being conscious of the weight of our words and helping people begin to reclaim their true identities ― wherever they are on their journey. And wherever that may be, they matter. A corrections officer once wondered how those under her supervision would like to be known. If it were up to them, how might they be called? She asked, and the group offered various answers ― inmate, prisoner, resident.
Then the corrections officer said, “What about just ‘woman’?”
They all acted surprised. They hadn’t even considered that one.
“You may be a man or woman in prison today,” says Heather Rice-Minus, “but we are all sons and daughters together at the foot of the cross. Your identity is a child of God. You are capable, through Christ, of transformation. Our worst days do not define us... This is not about ignoring the crime and what the person owes for that wrong ― it’s about holding people accountable, while recognizing that there is nothing any of us can do to separate us from the love of God and the human dignity He bestowed upon each of us.”