The criminal justice system has long since disproportionately affected BIPOC communities and all individuals who are not cisgender, straight, white, male, or disabled. The oppression and harm of the aforementioned communities continues in their criminalization and potential entry into the criminal justice system. This oppression and harm only continues once the individual’s incarceration ends as they must now carry a criminal record and the stigma that comes with it. Now, language has the power to connect and distance us. In referring to those who are undocumented as “illegals” or those who are incarcerated as “criminals,” we dehumanize these individuals and distance ourselves from what is happening to them. Rather than seeing them as the people they are, we see a title, a “crime” that will follow them as they go through society. In the fight for abolition and in restorative justice practices, our language is important as it affects the way those in the criminal justice system are seen and leads society as a whole to be complacent and supportive of the dehumanization and harm of those who are incarcerated. In order to successfully implement accountability and community-based systems, society as a whole must participate in decriminalization, beginning with our language.
Currently, the language used to describe certain individuals are based on their actions and, therefore, are dehumanizing. Through these words, society can reinforce harmful ideas that maintain the criminal justice system and greatly affect our perception, understanding, and willingness to uphold the current standard. For instance, we, as a society, have been fed the narrative that individuals who are incarcerated are simply “criminals” who did something horrendous and deserve to be incarcerated. Often, these individuals are shown in the media by their mug shots, which serves to further the idea that they are just “criminals.” Of course, this only applies to people of color. When the media shows white people who were arrested, they tend to show pictures from before they were incarcerated often with their families, smiling, human. The goal with showing only an individual’s mugshot is to dehumanize, to reduce the individual from being a person with a life to whatever “crime” they may have committed. In society’s mind, this person is a “criminal” rather than a life that is lost to the criminal justice system. This dehumanization greatly affects the person both in the system and once they’re no longer incarcerated as they no longer have access to housing, financial aid, or other benefits, and encounter difficulties in attaining a job which in turn affects the person’s ability to provide themselves basic needs.
It is crucial to restorative justice and abolition that we, as a society, amend our language when referring to those suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system. We must give them their humanity back in seeing them as a person rather than just their current state of life. For instance, rather than saying “prisoner,” “criminal,” “inmate,” “convict,” we can instead try “person who was/is incarcerated,” “person who was arrested,” anything that positions the individual as a person in order to not dehumanize this individual and allow them the right to continue their lives free of the shackles that follow a criminal record. The same applies for those who were harmed. Rather than reducing the individual harmed to what happened to them through words like “victim,” we should use “person who was harmed” or “survivor” in order to ensure that their healing process is not one where they are seen only in connection to what happened to them.
Additionally, adjusting the language we use is merely the first step in decriminalizing not only our minds but our society. By changing the language we use to describe individuals in the criminal justice system, we would no longer be distancing ourselves from their stories and we could view incarcerated individuals beyond their actions and see their pain, suffering, oppression, and the ineffectiveness and harm of the criminal justice system.
Do not use: Try instead:
“Criminal” Individual/person who caused harm
“Felons” Individual/person who harmed
“Offender” Individual/person who was convicted of a crime
“Detainee” Individual/person convicted of a crime
“Prisoner” Incarcerated/imprisoned Individual/person
“Inmate” Formerly incarcerated/imprisoned Individual/person
Individual/person who is/was incarcerated/imprisoned
“Parolee” Individual/person who is on parole
“Illegal immigrant” Individual/person seeking lawful status
“Illegal” Individual/person without lawful status
“Illegal alien” Individual/person who is undocumented
“Victim” Individual/person who was harmed