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Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

What to call incarcerated people: Your feedback

We received more than 200 responses to our callout asking the best way to refer to people behind bars. Of the options we offered, 38 percent preferred “incarcerated person,” 23 percent liked “prisoner” and nearly 10 percent supported use of the word inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”)

Here is a sample of the responses (some of which have been edited for length or clarity).

RelatedRead our initial post about criminal justice vocabulary.


I don't like the term - I was one once - but at least this term is localized to the actual incarceration event and allows someone to move past it once they are released.... – Robert Pelshaw

"Inmate" is concise and accurate without being pejorative...Arguably, "inmate" is more versatile than "prisoner," because it includes people who are confined to institutions other than prisons, such as psychiatric hospitals, and immigration detention centers. –Lindsay Beyerstein

Nomenclatures are important and exist to clarify the world around preference is to keep the terms simple while simultaneously remembering that there is a human being on the flip side of that word. – Trish Navaratnasingam

Just as you might refer to someone by their occupation, "an attorney, a writer, a teacher", while a person is in prison, they are "an inmate"....I am a retired state prison warden, and "inmate" is the term staff and inmates used. – Sherry Davison

For me the word inmate is not synonymous with criminality…Inmate suggests people confined within a dwelling, and for me, nothing more than that...For perspective: I worked at Reeves County Detention Center III as a correctional officer from 2006-2008. – Ashley Moya

As a journalist and convicted felon, I think a lot about the power that language has to redeem or condemn. Like a lot of reporters, I try to be thoughtful about the way I describe people, especially when I'm writing about marginalized groups. But on a personal level, I don't care much about whether someone labels me a felon, ex-con, or formerly incarcerated person -- whatever...If someone asks, I get right down to it: "I was convicted of a felony. I sat a year in jail for a burglary." See? When facts are stated frankly, labels have much less power...I appreciate being thoughtful about the labels we apply. But the question here seems more of a concern for the advocates or social worker -- less so for the convicted felon looking forward to having his civil rights restored. – Mario Koran

Incarcerated person

As a formerly incarcerated person, the term inmate feels disparaging. We were often called this by officers with a tone of disgust. I think it's important to use the term incarcerated person, however clunky, because it is so easy to forget that we are talking about people when we use words like inmate or prisoner. – Jacqueline Conn

I have had both experiences as a criminal defense attorney and an incarcerated woman. Prior to my incarceration, in the role as a defense attorney, I recognized the immediate devaluing of a person as a human being as soon as they encountered any aspect of the criminal justice system...While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as "the inmates". It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person's true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage... – Andrea James

Mass criminalization has pushed us to the point where one out of every three adults in the US have a criminal history record (arrest or conviction for a felony or a misdemeanor). That is an awful lot of people to simply relegate to their criminal justice status. They are first and foremost people. – Alan Rosenthal

As a public defender I know that many of the folks who are incarcerated aren't guilty, aren't criminals. I don't like the label. Because they are more than that, they are people, someone's people, my people. – Chantá Parker

It would be ridiculous to label each of us based on the worst moments of our lives. It’s equally ridiculous, and cruel, to make people forever bear labels that define them first and foremost as their crime. – Katherine Katcher, Founder & Executive Director, Root & Rebound: Reentry Advocates Berkeley, CA

The criminal justice system is meant to--or purports to--keep our society safe. If that is truly our objective, we should do everything within our power to ensure that it works towards those aims without creating (or perpetuating) a permanent class divide. Inmate, felon, and prisoner are just the latest epithets in a long and ugly history. – Jonathan Stenger

When I worked as summer law clerk at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on a team prosecuting 7 men ultimately convicted for the mass killing of over 3000 Muslim men and boys, we were asked to research what enabled the generals to get soldiers to carry out a slaughter such as this...Turned out, one of the most important steps was to rename the victims in the months (even years) preceding the mass murder. To get society in the habit of calling the group you'd like destroyed anything other than people is step one. It is a tactic of war and a tactic used to support genocidal acts. That is why, respectfully, I'm casting a strong vote in favor of "incarcerated person" and making an appeal that The Marshall Project and others steer clear of the dangerous words that dehumanize and make people invisible and dispensable. – Gina Clayton

Because I am not a status, I am a person and a human being. The labels are usually being used to my disadvantage and dehumanize me. It makes torturing and killing me much easier to do. Just think the next time you see one of us laying dead in the middle of the street and see how easily our deaths are excused by status, label, and history. I believe the current language makes the practice of racism and supremacy appear to be neutral. – Dorsey Nunn

When describing someone who is currently serving time in prison, we at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights believe that "incarcerated person" is the best term, but only insofar as the discussion is actually related to their incarceration. One of the problems with our criminal justice system is the pervasive belief that people serving time are no longer a part of our communities. Dehumanizing language like "convict," "inmate," "felon," or "prisoner" only serve to reinforce the belief that such a division exists, which can lead to stripping people in prison of their fundamental human rights, like the right to vote, to have healthcare, and to see their families. – Zachary Norris

Formerly incarcerated people taught me about how such language is preferable even to "prisoner," which is what I'd been taught to use in my prior advocacy work in the 1990s / early 2000s as an alternative to "inmate."...The state intentionally creates systems to dehumanize the people whom it imprisons as a strategy to make it easier to abuse power and exert control over people. The public is less likely to become outraged about human rights abuses against people in jails, prisons, detention centers, juvenile facilities, etc., if the people they are abusing are not seen as people (or as brothers, sisters, siblings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins), but rather as inmates, detainees, felons, sex offenders, rapists, addicts, etc. etc. – Andrea Bible

The problem is not just that this language is dehumanizing, as Eddie Ellis and so many others who have been called these words so persuasively insist. It is also that this language is inaccurate because it is incomplete: the elements about a person’s identity that it excludes are entirely relevant to our understanding and decision-making about what to do when that person has broken the law or causes harm...What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime—incarcerated *people*, *people* with felony convictions, *people* on parole, even *people* who have caused great harm and should be held meaningfully accountable. Any truly effective policy solutions will make central the humanity of everyone directly impacted by crime—including those who commit it. It is true, as you put it on your website, that “storytelling can be a powerful agent of social change.” The scale of change that is called for in this arena is significant enough that it not only demands new content, but new words. It is time to start talking about people. When we do, our language will reflect the humanity of those we describe, and we, too, will be humanized in the process. --Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice, Vera institute of Justice


Convict is too archaic, while "inmate" is a term once used for mental patients in asylums (and is often considered a derogatory term among prisoners). The correct term for people in jail who have not been convicted is "pre-trial detainee." "Formerly incarcerated person" is just getting too PC and putting form before substance. As a former prisoner myself, I don't want to be known as a "FIP." –Alex Friedmann, Prison Legal News

Inmate implies mental infirmity such as an inmate in a mental hospital. The person is being held in a prison and is therefore a prisoner regardless of how or why they are there. As a former prisoner myself, sentenced to 25 years for smuggling marijuana, I bridled at being called an inmate. – Richard Stratton

I want to recognize that the organization I work for, Black and Pink, has been conducting a survey of LGBTQ prisoners across the country [that asks this question directly], and of the nearly 1,000 respondents, there is no agreement. We offered the options of inmate, prisoner, incarcerated person, person who is incarcerated, and other. “Other” had the largest percent, with most respondents saying they simply want to be referred to by their name. The issue of language is essential, but it's important to be clear what purpose the user of the language has. I find the term "inmate" to be intentionally depoliticizing the reality of incarceration. When Black and Pink releases a final report, we will use the term prisoner in our writing, recognizing that there is not a universal agreement amongst our membership about terminology. – Jason Lydon

I'm a law student immersed in criminal defense. I'm also a prior defendant in a federal case with decades of punitive exposure, a veteran with four combat tours, and I have an MFA in Creative Writing, so I know the value of individual words….I propose that it's best to use words that describe what the vast majority of American inmates really are: Prisoners of War. They're prisoners of war in a racist and classist War on Drugs. They're prisoners of war in war against poverty, but instead of trying to raise them up out of poverty, our society just wants to throw them out of sight. – Matthew Hefti

As someone who was a prisoner myself, "Prisoner" is the most accurate term for someone in prison...One anecdote about this: I was once disciplined fairly harshly in a California women's prison for referring to myself as a prisoner while speaking to an officer. In our conversation, the guard interrupted me and told me I was a female inmate, and not a prisoner. He said that referring to myself as a prisoner was against rules and furthermore subversive to the order of the facility. – Kathleen Culhane


As a probation officer, they are initially defendants and eventually clients...They are receiving a service from me, the same as if they were applying for a loan at a bank. Past action is not always indicative a future action and a label should not precede the person. – Josh Gunselman

Person in prison...I have spent years working for and side-by-side with people who are in prison or who have been released from prison. I have witnessed over and over these individuals - who are my clients, my colleagues, and my friends - physically wince when others refer to them as "prisoner," "felon," "offender" or "criminal." It is a sad commentary on our society that people lose their status as people - as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, employees, friends, colleagues, etc., - because they have committed a crime and been caught. Yet people who have committed a crime and not been caught - and let's face it, this is the vast majority of all people - do not similarly lose their humanity. How can this be justified? Indeed, how can it be justified in the face of the reality that people of color tend to be caught more than their white counterparts? – Patricia Warth

Man or woman or person who is incarcerated...Let's stop using correctional language designed to denigrate and dehumanize. If we want to make sentencing less extreme and conditions of confinement less brutal, we need to keep each of the people suffering the cruelty of system up front. Words are important. – Lois Ahrens

Man, woman or person in prison...I teach at a prison and insist that my students not use the term "offender," which is what the prison system calls them and they, for too long, have called themselves. I tell them it would be like referring to someone as "liar" because they lied years ago. As for prison officers (and I was one), I find "guard" derogatory, and better describes something you do with inanimate objects. "Correctional officer" conveys a fanciful, and to my mind unseemly, relationship btw keeper and kept. "Prison officer" simply denotes an individual granted official authority within the specific domain of a penal institution. – Kelsey Kauffman

I work with juvenile offenders and I always insist on asking them what they prefer to be called, which is usually their first name. The security staff only ever call the kids by their last name. I've always felt that it's too militaristic and it allows staff to forget that they aren't dealing with adults. – Nancy Acevedo

Uttering their name without disdain will actually be music to their ears. Their path took a wrong turn. They are there to be corrected. Not punished! I was a cop for twenty years. – Kumar Prem

When you examine the history of this country whenever America wanted to oppress or dominate a particular group of people they first began with the language they used to describe that particular group of people. When America wanted to justify taking indigenous people's land we described them as "savages". When America wanted to justify the chattel slavery of African people we called them "jiggabo", "monkey" or "nigger" terms that debased their humanity. The list goes on and on. Lastly, I respectfully disagree with your argument that pejorative labels like "ex-convict" are accurate descriptors of people who have been to prison. The analysis is similar to one put forth by undocumented advocates when they began the "I" campaign. Labels like "ex-convict" describe conduct that I engaged in which may have violated a law but they do not describe the full breadth of my humanity. So in 1996 I was convicted of drug trafficking. Since that time I have attained my Associates, Bachelors, and Juris Doctor degrees. I'm licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina. I have been honored at the White House. I'm a Deacon in my church. I'm a husband, a father, and a valued member of my community. It's unfortunate and a disservice to the full breadth of my humanity to solely defined me by my contact with the criminal legal system. I'm more than the sum total of my contact with the criminal legal system. When the Marshall Project began I got the impression that you all wanted to report on issues related to criminal legal reform in a different way, to hopefully spur change and reform. Changing the language you all use to refer to people entangled in the criminal legal system will make you a leader in the media and further the progression of this movement. Thank you for the opportunity to give my perspective. – Daryl Atkinson

This article has 2 letters to the editor. Read the letters.