Don’t call people criminals, prisoners or prisoners

By Erica Bryant, Senior Writer, and Raf Jefferson, Vice President, Communications and External Relations, Vera Institute of Justice

Throughout history and around the world, dehumanizing language has facilitated the systemic, inhumane treatment of groups of people. This is certainly the case for people affected by the US criminal justice and immigration systems.

Now many people and organizations have moved away from using terms that objectify people’s involvement in these systems and make them the defining feature of their identity. But many others, especially politicians and media outlets, still use harmful and outdated language such as ‘convict’, ‘prisoner’, ‘thug’, ‘prisoner’ and ‘illegal immigrant’. The dehumanizing effect is multiplied after centuries of implicit bias and racist notions teaching us who to fear as some inherent criminal.

When Jerome R. Wright was incarcerated, corrections officers called him by his identification number instead of his name. “The minute you’re arrested, the language starts to become totally derogatory, humiliating and degrading,” said Wright, the statewide organizer of the #HALTsolitary campaign in New York.

There are better alternatives: alternatives that put a person’s humanity first, unravel racist narratives of crime, and help tackle the overcriminalization of people of color and the crisis of mass incarceration. These include “person convicted of a crime,” “person incarcerated,” “person convicted of a crime,” and “person seeking legal status.” These words and phrases are important. Eddie Ellis, a prison reformer and the founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing, was a pioneer in the pursuit of the humanization of language. “Calling me a prisoner, convict, prisoner, criminal, or perpetrator shows that I don’t understand who I am, but more importantly what I can be,” he wrote in 2006. open letter. There are better options.

Instead of…

  • criminal
  • to condemn
  • Criminal
  • Offender
  • Prisoner
  • conditional release
  • Illegal Immigrant
  • Illegal Stranger
  • inmate


  • Person convicted of a crime
  • Person convicted of a crime
  • Person on parole
  • Person who is locked up
  • Person seeking legal status
  • Person without legal status
  • Person in immigration detention

Calling a person convicted of a crime a “criminal”, “criminal” or “offender” defines them only by a past act and does not take into account their full humanity or leave room for growth. These words also instill fear and promote dangerous stereotypes, stigmatize people convicted of crimes and make it harder for them to thrive. That is why it is so important to use language that actively affirms humanity.

“Until this cancerous state and the people of this country begin to understand the power of the words that seek to dehumanize the incarcerated or justice-affected people, there will never be a real and substantive conversation about criminal justice reform,” Wright said. “Our humanity is maintained and respected by not referring to us in those impersonal and definitive terms, but by recognizing our intrinsic worth as human beings and not by defining us based on the worst day or act of our lives.”

Some institutions have policies in place to combat dehumanizing language. The New York City Council, for example, no longer allows city ​​correction officers to refer to people in prisons as “packages” or “bodies”. And the Biden administration directed Department of Homeland Security officials must stop using “alien” and “illegal alien” to refer to people without immigration documents.

But unfortunately, dehumanizing words feature prominently in headlines, political speeches and everyday language. A 2021 News Media Study Found more than 10,000 articles published in 2020 that included the terms “criminal,” “prisoner,” or “perpetrator.” During the same period, only 480 articles used the human-first language. Meanwhile, two national studies by the Benenson Strategy Group show that people exposed to using dehumanizing language to describe people involved in the criminal justice system are significantly more likely to express negative views about them and less likely to support policy changes aimed at reducing incarceration or increasing post-incarceration opportunities.

Language is powerful. It shapes thoughts and attitudes, and it can have a serious effect on how a society sees and treats groups of people. People who are influenced by the criminal legal and immigration systems are too often denied their dignity. Choosing human language is a step towards asserting the dignity of those ensnared in dehumanizing systems. We can all work to show them respect by using language that affirms their humanity.

As Wright said, “If you can’t see me as… [a] human, then you will never treat me as human. And I can never escape the parameters of the system.”

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