Words Really Matter – The Impact of Terminology on the Formerly Incarcerated

The Impact of Terminology on the Formerly Incarcerated 2

By Diane Spaar / The NIA Team

As a child, I remember hearing the saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That may have been cute back then but as I have grown up, I see every day that the words we use can indeed be as hurtful as physical weapons. The damage from our words can last years after the fact and can change lives forever.

The language we use when addressing or talking about a specific group of people can shape the way people respond. That’s why we have a responsibility to choose our words wisely and educate ourselves with terminology that’s proper and that simply makes sense. It’s no longer acceptable to use derogatory or slang words just because they’re familiar. Just watching the news will show stories of how words are being used to divide us and make us afraid of others who may have done nothing to us personally. The words used have shaped our perception of people and so the stigma and bias lives on.

Words are Powerful

Words are often vessels of power, so not being careful in the selection of terminology we use can have a negative impact – even when it is not intentionally done. Words have the power to elicit numerous feelings such as shame, inspiration, anger, and excitement; therefore, it takes education and patience to make sure that the words you use are carefully selected.

One group of people has been legally discriminated against for years and much of it is due to the words used when describing them. It isn’t a description based on race, gender, age or religion. Those are protected classes so there can be outrage when someone demeans a person that belongs to any of those groups. However, if you have been arrested or convicted of a crime, society seems to feel they have the right to use offensive words to describe who they feel you are.

“Felon,” “Inmate,” “Convict,” “Thug,” “Criminal,” “Sex Offender.” You may be familiar with or even have used those words yourself. These are just a few examples of the words that have been commonly repeated in an attempt to remind everyone that the people labeled are not like the rest of us. They don’t deserve a second chance; they will never change and they will always be unacceptable.

Would any of us want to be forever labeled for the worst thing we ever did? Imagine you crashed your car one time in the past. No matter whatever positive thing you did, or went on to do, the label of "car-wrecker" would define you. Would you want to be known only for that for the rest of your life? I doubt it and that’s why I get especially frustrated when I hear insensitive words being used by people who should know better.

"Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill."

- Buddha

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Words can Create Barriers for Change

The weight and impact of the words we choose to describe others can have long-lasting and lingering effects. For instance, someone who is commonly called a “criminal” long after paying their dues and making right the wrong-doings of their past can create a self-fulfilling prophecy – i.e. feeling like a criminal can alter your decision-making if you feel that it is impossible to remedy the stigma.

Moreover, psychologists like John F. Kelly highlight the impact of word choice, in the sense of stigmas, in relationship to people who need drug or alcohol treatment. Kelly states that people avoid treatment for fear of what their friends, neighbors, and employers will think of them if they admit to being a “substance abuser.” Instead, he suggests saying “substance use disorder” as supported by a survey of 500 mental health care providers where he found that clinicians were significantly more likely to say that “substance abusers” are personally responsible for their actions and should be punished as compared to people described as having “substance use disorder.”

What we can extrapolate from Kelly’s work is that the simple use of different terminology can not only impact the sentiment of the one being described, but also the sentiment of those on the outside. Someone continually referred to as an “ex-convict” rather than “formerly incarcerated” will have an entirely different emotional response and acceptance back into society. Making it extremely difficult to be reformed, healed, or set on a better path.

Being Oblivious Has Cost

While watching our local news, the station did a story about a reentry organization that was having a fish fry to raise money to help people returning to the community after incarceration. It was great to see the men in good spirits frying fish and interacting with the community… UNTIL. the news reporter started talking about the men. In his interviews the reporter used outdated terminology in describing the men who had formed this organization and who were providing this service. He used the term "ex-convict" several times during the story. While his reporting was meant to highlight how the community can support the great work that these men are a part of, it just reinforced the stereotypical, negative branding of those trying to reenter and start over. When I emailed him my concern about the language he used, his response was that “none of the men objected” and “we used those words so our viewers would understand what we meant.” I would argue that they used those words because we all let them. Because too many of us still find excitement in the controversy those words convey.

In 2016 the Justice Department acknowledged that the use of the terms "felon," "convict," and "inmate" were disparaging and a hindrance to reentry. It no longer uses those terms and instead calls people who have served their sentence "returning citizens" or "formerly incarcerated." Those still incarcerated should be called "incarcerated persons" if a label is considered necessary.

Change Requires Empathy

It has taken decades for society to come to understand the pain that certain labels or words can bring to people struggling to be their best and to repair their lives. It’s no longer acceptable to single out people with addictions, physical or mental disabilities, or different ethnicities by using terms that are designed to set them apart. The time has come to look at people impacted by the criminal justice system as people first. That’s quite different from how we look at what they might have done. Start a conversation and see that behind the label is someone who could be our loved one or even ourselves.