by Brian Bergen-Aurand
On Tuesday, 1 November 2016, the Washington state Department of Corrections issued a memo stating it will no longer refer to those persons under its supervision as “offenders.” (The state dropped the term “inmates” in favor of “offenders” in the 2000s. Now, it is rethinking its labels again.) According to the memo, corrections officials are being encouraged to refer to those men and women serving time by specific, dynamic terms, such as “individual,” “librarian,” “student,” or by their names. It will also stop referring to families, such as those on visitations, as “offender families.” The point is to move past generic, essential terms of identification. It is a tiny step.
While not every person in DOC custody has expressed a significant reaction to this rule change, many have said they are delighted to see this reform and moves away from the stereotypes attached to it. Advocates, such as Loretta Fisher with Prison Voice Washington, have been pushing for this language change for some time, in the hopes of reducing one public aspect of the humiliation following those how have been incarcerated.
The brief response a spokesman for the union representing front line prison staff focused on “improving staff safety and security.”
In a manner, I would argue this small linguistic gesture is a move that addresses both advocates’ and union representatives’ concerns. Because such a labeling change seeks to alter the verbal relationship between staff and those under their supervision, it has the potential to alter the foundation of that very relationship. How we label people, especially within hierarchical situations such as the prison system, has effects on the relations within those situations. Many studies suggest labels become self-fulfilling markers, at least incrementally. When we label someone as something, we increase the perception (including the self-perception) of that person as that something. Calling someone “smart” makes that person seem to smarter. Calling someone “friendly” makes that person seem friendlier. Calling someone “an offender” makes that person seem more offensive. References to actions become identities.
With more accurate, more dynamic terminology, we might just see the relationships between prison officials at every level and those persons they supervise as more specific, more interactive. Such a language change may encourage everyone involved to see their relationships on more human levels. While staff might be more able to see the individuals under their charge are particular persons, those particular persons might also be more able to see staff as individuals who supervise them.
The prison system in the United States is incredibly dangerous and fraught with dehumanizing mechanisms top to bottom. For the most part, prisons as we know them are obsolete, and we should be discussing their abolition rather than their reform. However, as reforms go, this might be a tiny one that could have some significant effects up and down the line.