The language of incarceration—which words do you use?

The Marshall Project‘s Bill Keller has requested readers speak out about what language should be used to describe people who are criminal justice involved. I suggest readers write in, speak out. Let your voice be heard.

“Inmate. Parolee. Felon. Discuss.”

Writes Keller:

When it’s relevant to a story (and, given our subject matter, it will often be relevant), we do not need to tiptoe around the fact that someone was convicted of a crime, or served time. There’s nothing wrong with referring to people charged with crimes as defendants, people who have been convicted of a crime as criminals or felons, people who are incarcerated as inmates or prisoners, and to those who have been paroled as parolees — especially when we are discussing policies and practices that affect those people as categories. When their status in the criminal justice system is the subject, it makes sense to refer to them by their status.

At the same time, especially when we are dealing with individuals, we want to be careful about using language that is needlessly reductive or belittling, or that turns a behavior into an identity, or that employs a label as a kind of gratuitous shorthand. Once we have established that a subject served time for a crime, we should not make every subsequent reference “the ex-felon,” “the convicted rapist,” etc. The person has a name.


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