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People-First Language Matters. So Does the Rest of the Story.

While we have to be aware that any word we choose has influence, no amount of Googling will reveal the magic word that brings justice into American prisons.

I was pretty insecure about saying the wrong thing when I started working at The Marshall Project. In my previous jobs, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the words I used to talk about incarcerated people unless it was to make a headline shorter or get more clicks. For months, I frantically Googled terms before Zoom calls with colleagues, hoping to preempt a foot-in-mouth moment.

“The Language of Incarceration,” a piece about the evolution of prison-related language, helped me realize that the questions I’d been asking — “Inmate or prisoner? “Ex-convict or formerly incarcerated person? — were too simplistic. In the piece, Alexandra Cox, a University of Essex senior sociology lecturer and criminal justice reform advocate, reveals that intent and context are often more important than buzzwords.

Right now, we’re living in a moment when “person-first” language is what’s woke. But Cox is quick to point out that these humanizing efforts can actually obscure the dehumanizing experience of incarceration. While we should be aware of the impact of any word we choose, no amount of Googling will reveal the magic word that brings justice into American prisons. To talk through all of this, I got Cox on the phone. Here’s what she had to say:

Before you became a professor, you worked at a public defender's office and you were a drug law reformer.* Now, in addition to writing and teaching, you work to mitigate sentences for youth charged as adults. As an advocate and academic, how do you choose to talk about incarcerated people?

I talk about people who are locked up as people because they are people. I would hope journalists follow a similar path to reflect the fluid lives of their subjects. We might think of someone as an “inmate.” But that person is inhabiting a lifeworld both inside and outside prison, before and after being locked up. Journalists actually have the skills to communicate this. They can use language to paint a portrait that teaches us about the complexity of human life and separate a person from their status.

Why is it important to focus on a person over their “status”?

Counternarratives about incarceration are just more interesting. This goes deeper than the words we use. It’s also about offering a perspective that interrupts assumptions. I’ve been in the criminal justice realm for years and I haven’t met anyone who has a predictable story. The challenge, especially with journalism, is trying to get at that truth.

Why are people drawn to labels over more nuanced descriptions?

For people who use these terms, it can make them feel safe. I worked at State University of New York in New Paltz and had a class of students who loved the word “criminal.” It was easy to say, *“*A criminal did this,” or “The criminal did that.” But during my office hours, I’d have the same students tell me that their dad was a prison guard, or their brother was locked up or they’d been arrested. In the classroom, it was comforting for them to pretend that this was not the case. Using those terms created a sense of belonging for them. Instead of admitting we are all connected to the carceral system, they could say, “The criminal is over there, and it’s not me.”

Are there consequences for the words that we use?

There is evidence that language can shape perceptions about an incarcerated person’s capacity to change. A journalist using person-first language might help the public see an incarcerated person as a member of their community. And this could translate into a business person’s decision to hire them. Labels like “criminal,” on the other hand, create a sense of appropriate marginalization, where we feel certain people don’t belong in our world.

How do labels that embody specific crimes fit into this issue?

There’s research that “child molester” has lived consequences, such as vigilantism and banishment policies. There has been a lot of work done in that area because it’s so explicit. Of course, challenging registries and sexual offense terminology is controversial. When you talk about a term like “rapist,” naming that violence is important to many people.

There is a huge range of sexual offenses that become collapsed in our limited terms. When we talk about “pedophiles” or “child molesters,” those labels can become master identities for people, to the point that they’re even excluded from spaces that might be open to other formerly incarcerated people.

How do labels impact the way incarcerated people see themselves?

There are a lot of activists who talk about language with a determinism element to it. They think if you don’t use the right word, people’s identities will shift. But when I talk to people inside, some feel that a word like “felon” can be used as a point of power. I’ve realized labels are always evolving — especially in the ways that people are responding to the ones thrust upon them. Being labeled something negative by society can bring out an internalized sense of oppression, but it can also create the possibility for resistance.

Are we dealing with the nuances in the right way?

There’s a weird dynamic of White liberals going into prisons to teach their drama class or whatever, and they end up telling people not to say a word like “inmate.” This can be condescending. These tensions around terminology can reveal a lot about class and who gets to control a narrative. I’m less concerned with nitpicking everyday uses of terms than how a journalist engages in a more reflective approach. My friends who’ve been inside would say that they don’t spend a lot of time in prison fretting about being called an “inmate” or not. They have bigger concerns.

What would happen if everyone started using person-first language?

Abolitionists would say that just because you’re shifting terminology, it doesn’t mean you’re shifting the system. Even if every department of corrections or journalist changed their terminology, that doesn’t mean the people who are incarcerated would be treated more humanely. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

What shifts can you foresee in this conversation?

I recently saw a disability rights campaign called #saytheword that was about moving away from people-first language. They wanted people to start saying “disabled” again and take ownership over the word and the identity. They call it “disability-first language.” It reminds me of past efforts by incarcerated people to own identities like “convict.”

What I take away from that is to never assume that everyone who is locked up has the same views. There is a tendency to say that we should just use one type of language. Instead, we should operate from a position that is not about language policing, but about people’s experiences. We need to be reflecting more on how they think about their own lives inside and outside prison.

Wilbert L. Cooper is a Cleveland-based staff writer for the Marshall Project. Previously, he worked at VICE Media where he was a senior editor, writer and on-camera correspondent for the Vice TV network and the Vice on HBO show. He’s also contributed writing to publishers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Fader, and the Guardian. His feature-length documentary "The Cleveland Strangler" was nominated for an Ellie Award in 2016. He was also named one of the Most Stylish Men in Media by Complex magazine, and one of the 40 Powerful Black Media Stars Under 40 by Rolling Out magazine.

*Story has been updated to clarify that Cox was not a public defender. She worked at a public defender's office.