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  • Doug Tjapkes

What’s in a name?

So, how do you refer to people who reside behind bars? What do you call them? Criminal, convict, offender, felon, super-predator, lawbreaker, delinquent, inmate, prisoner? Our board chair, Russ Bloem, has been insistent that we reconsider the terms used for referring to someone who is incarcerated. This week we get some guidance from the Marshall Project, which has developed a policy on what to call someone behind bars. In a prison survey taken by the MP, 38% preferred being labeled an “incarcerated person,” 23% were OK with the term “prisoner,” but only 10% wanted to be called an “inmate.” I thought the Marshall Project gave an excellent explanation as to why they were taking a look at this issue: It’s important to note that our policy is not an attempt to exonerate anyone or minimize the impact of crime on people victimized by it. It is designed to promote precision and accuracy and to convey the humanity of people who are routinely dehumanized by the media and society So, here’s the Marshall Project’s new policy: the words “inmates” and “convicts” are never used! The preferred term is “incarcerated,” next in line is “imprisoned,” followed by “people or person in prison.” After 20 years in this business, I’m thinking Russ and the Marshall Project are on the right track. We should be more considerate when choosing titles for those behind bars. In my conversations with the incarcerated over the years, I have found that many are much less sensitive than others over what they are called. One of our clients bitterly complained to me about being called an “inmate” back in the early days of our formation. I asked others behind bars, and many just shrugged. They really didn’t care. In all fairness, the Marshall Project survey wasn’t all that scientific, either. I think they polled about 200 incarcerated persons. The thing is, county jails also fit under the MP’s umbrella, and according to their statistics about 70% of people in jail have not yet been convicted! If the word “inmate” implies guilt, calling these people inmates isn’t fair at all. Really, it’s all a matter of dignity, and I and our team respect that. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27. This statement from UNICEF underscores the importance of being sensitive when using labels referring to the incarcerated: Every human being deserves respect, dignity and equality. No matter who they are. No matter where they live. No matter the colour of their skin. The perpetrator of a heinous crime, you, and me: All created in the image of God.

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