In an open letter on the question of language, Eddie Ellis invites us to use humanizing language when referring to people with criminal records. In his words:
One of our first initiatives is to respond to the negative public perception about our population 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. These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to 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.”
We believe that if we can get progressive publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop 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. We also firmly believe that if we cannot persuade you to refer to us, and think of us, as people, then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised.
Accordingly, please talk with your friends and colleagues about this initiative. If you agree with our approach encourage others to join us. Use positive language in your writing, speeches, 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. Kindly circulate this letter on your various list serves.
4 Easy Steps To Follow
1. Be conscious of the language you use. Remember that each time you speak, you convey powerful word picture images.
2. Stop using the terms offender, felon, prisoner, inmate and convict.
3. Substitute the words PEOPLE and RETURNING CITIZENS for these other negative terms.
4. Encourage your friends, family and colleagues to use positive language in their speech, writing, publications and electronic communications.
Edwin (“Eddie”) Ellis (1941-2014) was born in Harlem, December 1941. At the age of twenty-five, he was director of Community Relations for the New York City branch of the Black Panther Party. In 1969, caught up in the infamous FBI operation, COINTELPRO, which systematically attacked organizations like the Panthers and other radical groups, Ellis was arrested and accused of killing a man he had never seen, had no connection to, and no motive for slaying. Ellis was released from prison after serving a twenty-five year sentence from 1969 to 1994. He graduated from the Masters of Professional Studies program at Sing Sing in 1989. As former president of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, he helped to spearhead prison policy reform across the nation.
Eddie Ellis and Kaia Stern began working together in 1994, shorty after Ellis was released from prison. They collaborated on various projects: Conflict with Cops curriculum (Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, 1994); People’s Law School (Vera Institute of Justice/Kings County District Attorney’s office, 1995); Interfaith Justice Project (The Riverside Church, 2002–2004); After Prison Initiative (Open Society Institute, 2005); In/Justice Collective (University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006); and Remembering Attica (Harvard Law School, 2012). Ellis’ letter on language and exceptional narrative are the leaven for Stern’s first book, Voices from American Prisons (Routledge, 2014).