How We Work
At FICGN we are committed to making sure that a college education is widely available and easily accessible to incarcerated people. However, we cannot do this work without the willingness of people working inside and outside of the criminal legal system to expand their capacity for empathy. This intentionality begins with the words we say, the language we use, and the stories we tell and reinforce about people who are or have been directly impacted by the legal system.
The vocabulary surrounding system impacted people has been culled from copaganda. It is the language of shows like COPS and Law & Order as well as that of local and national news which operates under an ethos of “If it bleeds, it leads.” The broadcasting of perp walks, the excessive use of mug shots, and referring to people as suspects, offenders, predators, killers, robbers, rapists, and deviants has created a narrative environment where people are reduced to their actions. These words are not descriptions but titles. When used in place of a name, much like a prison ID number, people are stripped of both their agency and humanity. At FICGN we seek to restore both by adopting person-first language (as highlighted in the chart below) that confers dignity upon those who have been dehumanized.
|Do Say||Don’t Say|
|Formerly Incarcerated Person or System Impacted Person||Ex- or Former: Offender, Inmate Convicted Felon, or|
|Person In Recovery or Who Has Overcome Addiction||Former Drug Addict|
|Person Convicted of a Violent Felony||Murderer, Robber|
|Person Convicted of a Sex Crime||Rapist, Pedophile|
|Incarcerated Person||Inmate, Offender, Prisoner**|
|Criminal Legal System or Penal System||Criminal Justice System|
|Person on Parole or Person Under Community Supervision||Parolee|
|Person Recently Released from Prison||Returning Citizen^|
|Students Who Are Incarcerated||Prisoner Students|
Person first language is humanizing. It acknowledges one’s humanity before the consequence of their action or current domicile. At FICGN, person-first language is an integral part of our vision to build a society in which formerly incarcerated people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and offense types pursue their dreams as educated and empowered citizens with valued experiences.
Yet, these dreams have no room for growth into achievable goals if the only ones using person-first language are system-impacted people, their advocates, friends, and family members. For the full breadth of experience of formerly incarcerated people to be valued, employers, business leaders, foundations, organizers, legislators and society writ large must also adopt person-first language. However, embracing a person-first approach goes beyond mere messaging. It is a call for action.
Employers, businesses, and organizations who claim to be person-first should consider formerly incarcerated people not only for their low wage positions, but for Executive Director, COO, and CEO roles as well. Institutions of higher education should create pathways for system impacted people to easily transfer credits once their period of incarceration is complete. These shifts in operation should not be beholden to budgets, incentives, or recidivism rates but be predicated on the action of an individual person; not inmate, not ex-con, but person.
Using person-first language and taking person-first action means making a conscientious decision to distinguish between what someone’s institutional status is versus who they truly are–human beings.
At FICGN we are working to help people in our network develop both the soft and hard skills, professional development, and leadership preparation required to move to the next phase of advancement in their career and in their lives. To do so demands that we require our partners to adopt humanizing language, take humanizing action, and show themselves to be person-first. It is how we do our work and is the only way to create a world where formerly incarcerated people have the rights and opportunities necessary to make meaningful contributions to our communities and beyond.