FICGN is fully committed to ensuring that individuals impacted by the legal system have widespread and convenient access to quality education, jobs, and housing. However, we recognize that this task cannot be achieved without the collective willingness of those inside and outside the punishment system to cultivate greater empathy. To begin, this requires an intentional shift in the language we use, the words we embrace, and the stories we tell about people who have been directly impacted.
The vocabulary typically used to describe formerly incarcerated people has been largely shaped by copaganda – the language used in popular TV shows and sensationalized news reporting. By broadcasting perp walks, using excessive mugshots, and labeling individuals as suspects, offenders, predators, killers, robbers, and rapists, or associating someone with the crime they were convicted of, the media reduces individuals to their actions, stripping them of their agency and humanity. Such words function not as descriptions, but as titles that replace a person’s name or identity. At FICGN, we are committed to countering this dehumanization by adopting person-first language, as highlighted in the chart below, to restore dignity and humanity to those who the system has devalued.
|Instead of Saying||You Can Say|
|Ex- or Former: Offender, Inmate, Convicted Felon, or Convict||Formerly Incarcerated Person or Directly-Impacted Person*|
|Violent Offender, Murderer, Robber||Person Convicted of a Violent Crime|
|Sex Offender Rapist, Molester, Pedophile||Person Convicted of a Sex Crime or Person/People with sex offenses or People on the registry|
|Inmate, Offender, Prisoner**||Incarcerated Person/People|
|Criminal Justice System||Criminal Legal System or Penal System|
|Parolee||Person on Parole or a Person Under Community Supervision|
|Returning Citizen^||A Person Recently Released|
|Inmate or Offender Students||Students Who Are Incarcerated, Inside Students|
**Some formerly incarcerated people DO embrace the term “prisoner” but it is up to them–not anyone else–to use that language to describe themselves.
^Similar to using the word “justice” when referring to the system, many formerly incarcerated people do not embrace “citizen” since full citizenship (e.g., voting rights, job discrimination, etc.) is not fully restored to all persons upon release from incarceration
While many individuals and organizations–including FICGN–already use identity-first language, there is a growing movement towards person-first language. For instance, instead of saying “formerly incarcerated student,” which places the identity of being formerly incarcerated before the person, person-first language would place the person before their status or legal history. Therefore, saying “student in reentry” or, if their status is completely irrelevant based on the conversation in that moment, using “student” is fine. The goal is to remove these unique identifiers that may sometimes be unintentionally “othering”. Using person-first language and taking person-first action means making a conscientious decision to distinguish between someone’s institutional status versus who they truly are–human beings.
FICGN is dedicated to helping individuals in our network develop the academic skills, professional experience, and leadership preparation they need to advance in their careers and lives. However, achieving this goal requires our partners and, quite frankly, everyone to adopt a person-first approach that values humanizing language and actions. While our name is identity-first, reflecting how we as a community embrace our collective identity, we believe in the transformative power of ALL humanizing language. It is a crucial element of our vision to build a society where all people impacted by the legal system can live without being labeled, described as, or introduced in ways that defame our character, depreciate our worth, and denies us human dignity.
For more on using humanizing language when referring to individuals belonging to stigmatized groups, look no further than the following resources:
- An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language – via The Center For NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (written by Eddie Ellis)
- Language Guide for Communicating About Those Involved In The Carceral System – Underground Scholars
- The Language Project – The Marshall Project
- What Words We Use–and Avoid–When Covering People and Incarceration – The Marshall Project
- Words Matter Guide – The Fortune Society
- Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language to Describe People in Prison – ReWire News Group
- People first: Changing the way we talk about those touched by the criminal justice system – Urban Institute.