Language sensitivity – people who have been in prison

The following open letter was posted by the director of The Riverside Church Metro Prison Ministry. It is part of a campaign to “change public opinion, one person at a time.” We are including it in furtherance of that campaign, and because of the insightful nature with which it treats language around people who have been incarcerated:


Dear Friends:

One of the primary initiatives of The Riverside Church Metro Prison Ministry is to respond to the negative public perception about people formerly or currently incarcerated as expressed in the language and concepts used to describe us. When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons. All terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people. While these terms have achieved a degree of acceptance, and are the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, the prison industrial complex and public policy agencies, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking that you stop using them.

In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.

We habitually underestimate the power of language. The bible says, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” In fact, all of the faith traditions recognize the power of words and, in particular, names that we are given or give ourselves. Ancient traditions considered the “naming ceremony” one of the most important rites of passage. Your name indicated not only who you were and where you belonged, but also who you could be. The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself “for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” It follows then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be. I can be and am much more than an “ex-con,” or an “ex-offender,” or an “ex-felon.”

The Riverside Church Metro Prison Ministry firmly believes that if we can get progressive publications, organizations and individuals like you to refrain from using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as “people,” we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are. We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society. We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use. We think that by insisting on being called “people” we reaffirm our right to be recognized as human beings, not animals, inmates, prisoners or offenders.

Accordingly, please talk with your friends and colleagues about this initiative. If you agree with our approach encourage others to join us. Use the new language in your publications, web sites and literature. When you hear people using the negative language, gently and respectfully correct them and explain why such language is hurting us. Please circulate this letter on your various list serves. If you disagree with this initiative, kindly write and tell us why at the above address or e-mail us at eellis –at–theriversidechurchny -[dot]- org. Perhaps we have overlooked something.

Please join us in making this campaign successful. With your help we can change public opinion, one person at a time. Thank you so much.
In Solidarity and Love,
Eddie Ellis, Director
The Riverside Church Metro Prison Ministry

We wish all the best to the Riverside Church and thank them for the insight we have gained from their experience.


Categories Stormy Issues | Tags: , | Posted on December 21, 2009

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