Don’t refer to incarcerated individuals as prisoners. They are not prisoners, they are folks who’ve been prisonized by the State. Referring to them as such trivializes their identities by defining them solely by the institution that confines them. It becomes much easier to rely on stereotypical depictions of incarcerated folks when they are labeled as prisoners. ‘Prisoner’ carries an inherently negative connotation pinned up by notions of disgust & incorrigibility. We can alter this damaging palimpsest by moving away from these monolithic characterizations. Instead of seeing Joe as a prisoner unworthy of respect, we should see him in a holistic light as someone who, perhaps, suffered from a lack of economic autonomy in life that guided his behavior that led to his incarceration.
In many ways, this argument is similar to referring to immigrants as undocumented instead of illegal aliens. No human being is illegal just as no human belongs in a cage. We can begin to shrink the social distance of incarceration by changing the language we use in common discourse. It is a simple step that reaps immediate short and long-term benefits. In the short term, we can begin the process of re-humanizing hundreds of thousands of fellow Californians who are currently incarcerated. In the long term, we can ease their transition back to society by acknowledging their experiences and offering second chances.
For those unmotivated by these humanitarian rationales (which is doubtful for the three readers of this blog), we can always fall back on the profound cost of incarceration as a mobilizing factor. By distancing ourselves from the lifetime sentence of being branded a prisoner we can extend more economic & social opportunities to help these folks from ever returning to prison. ‘Prisoners’ are barred from reintegrating back into mainstream society by over 40,000 legal discriminatory barriers. Individuals who have complex pasts that involved structural injustices and self-inflicted harms should enter an ecosystem eager to help them move forward, not eager to send them back at all turns.
Often, folks don’t believe in second chances until they need one themselves. Implicit in this line of reasoning is the idea that in this country it would be incredibly wrong for someone to receive something they don’t deserve. Empathy should be a foundational quality society is built on. In order for it to become so, we must be the catalysts for the change we want to see. This isn’t a call to social justice warriors, it’s a call for basic human decency.