INSIDE THE WALLS | By Any Other Name

“Of all the practices that dehumanize prisoners, calling them “one who offends” is by far the worst. It sets the tone and is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I used to think simply knowing a lot of statics and complaining about the prison industrial complex made me an activist. Then one day a correctional officer challenged my rhetoric. He asked, “Do you have any better options?” He acknowledged that the current system was more warehousing than rehabilitation but pointed out that currently there isn’t anything better. Nearly eight years later I still think about his question and how the penitentiary, a Quaker invention, can evolve into an institution for improvement.

One of the most important things is how we communicate. The Department of Corrections refers to all of its inmates as “offenders.” Even after one has been paroled or discharged, they are forever an “ex-offender.” This reminder is evident when they attempt to visit or contact their friends and family still on the inside. The problem is that it’s not only an excessively used slur (policy and memorandum use the word to the nth degree even when it’s abundantly clear who’s being referenced), it used to be the sole designation for sex offenders. When I first came into the system over fifteen years ago, if anyone was talking about an offender, chances are they were talking about someone who had molested a child. Now it’s the blanket term, which amounts to daily negative reinforcement.

Of all the practices that dehumanize prisoners, calling them “one who offends” is by far the worst. It sets the tone and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The distastefulness of the term is quickly revealed when applied peripherally. Staff does not like to be referred as “offender counselors,” for example. The inmate council recently conducted a survey to ascertain what the prison population would prefer to be called. Note that this was purely for our satisfaction and will have no bearing on actual DOC policy. One of the most popular choices was “resident.” Many even chose “prisoner” rather than “offender.” (“Human being” wasn’t an option.) Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with calling me by my surname. My incarcerated status is surely evident by my ID, assigned cell, and generic clothing.

There are other issues that need to be tackled in order to make prisons places that build character rather than break it. Recognizing the humanity of others starts with how we treat each other. Publishing this brief commentary is a step in the right direction. Once you give prisoners a voice, you open the door to healthy communication.

Editor’s Note: In the September/October issue we stated a new policy to only use first names and last initials of inmates whose Inside the Walls columns we publish. This prompted criticism from one inmate who wrote that an incarcerated individual is already reduced to a number and seen not as a person but the embodiment of their crime, concluding: “Either you are for the full expression of our humanity or you’re not.” We started the column to give incarcerated humanists a voice, and while most readers have responded positively, the ease of the internet allows them to look into writers’ crimes. We want to avoid that becoming the focus, rather than who these writers are today and how humanism is informing their present and future. Affirming the inherent worth and dignity of each human being remains our goal, and we thank that writer for sharing his perspective. The author of this issue’s column was notified of the policy and communicated his acceptance. —JB