Incarcerated is not a fixed identity

“35 inmates infected at state prison.” 

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“1 in 5 prisoners have had COVID-19.” 

“Three death row inmates die of COVID-19.”

In the past year, as COVID-19 tore through prisons across the nation, headlines like these became common. This crisis drew fresh media attention to the failures of the nation’s prison systems: overcrowding, long sentences, inadequate health responses. But, even as these stories followed humanitarian crises unfolding behind prison walls, one word was often conspicuously absent: person

I wrote some of those stories myself while covering the San Quentin coronavirus outbreak for a California news organization. The formerly incarcerated men I spoke with were initially wary. They had come to expect stories identifying themselves, and their friends, by the worst action they had committed in their lives: inmate, convict, felon, prisoner.

With the pandemic, that frustration became untenable for them. As the virus swept through San Quentin’s overcrowded quarters, their friends — many of whom were elderly, serving long sentences for actions taken decades ago — were growing sick and dying inside. Yet, day after day, these men saw coverage that emphasized their friends’ crimes. And, day after day, the state failed to mitigate the virus’s spread, even after public health officials urged the state to reduce the prison population by one-half.

“I have no interest, and I want to make this crystal clear, in releasing violent criminals from this system,” Governor Gavin Newsom said during a press conference in March of last year. “And I won’t use a crisis to excuse another crisis.” 

Today, two years after the state of California abolished the death penalty, 222 people in state prisons have died from COVID-19

Journalism outlets have an ethical responsibility to shift to person-first language when covering incarcerated people. Terms like inmate, convict, and prisoner focus readers’ attention on a person’s temporary incarceration over their humanity. By rendering a condition, incarceration, into a fixed identity, state-sponsored labels help rationalize long sentences and recidivism. They act as an implicit tool of othering, easing the collective ethical burden in condemning men and women to decades behind walls, and making it harder for those lucky enough to re-enter society to transcend that status. 

Long before the coronavirus, the language of imprisonment worked as a tool of the criminal justice system. Words helped officials justify shuttering people en masse; but, faced with a catastrophic outbreak, they confused these same officials away from saving their lives.

The Problem

Today, most mainstream publications still commonly use “inmate,” “prisoner,” “convict,” and “felon.” Despite pushback and extensive reporting, like this piece from Poynter last year, these terms remain in the Associated Press Style Guide, often held up as a standard for neutrality and objectivity.

But the source of these terms reveals that they’re far from neutral. “Inmate,” “convict,” and “prisoner” come from the nation’s prison system itself – and they come charged with the insidious influence of one of the largest and most powerful institutions on the planet.

More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States —a number far exceeding that of any other country in the world —and tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually to keep them there. Despite making up only 5 percent of the global population, the United States holds 25% of its prison population. Additionally, Black men are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned for a nonviolent offense than white men.

It doesn’t have to be this way: Since 1970, the nation’s prison population increased by 700 percent, far outpacing any increase in population or crime. Yet these terms implicitly justify the sustained incarceration of these men and women — whatever circumstance led them to prison, and whatever they have done to earn re-entry into society during their time served. Today, the California state prison system operates at 175 percent capacity, leading to overcrowding that exacerbated the virus’s spread.

“When you make the appeal of objectivity, what you’re saying is that state-sponsored language is the default,” James King, Campaign Manager at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights told me in a recent interview. But, he says, just looking at the numbers, it’s clear that the state prison system “doesn’t believe in its own stated mission of rehabilitation.”

In 2019, New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism School professor Jelani Cobb told the Columbia Journalism Review that depersonalized media coverage directly contributed to the attitudes that help power the singular American system of mass incarceration: a system that, too often, targets and funnels low-income people of color out of society.

“As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings,” Cobb said.

Still, we urgently need responsible coverage of the prison system. What happens inside penal institutions is of public interest: after all, they hold nearly one percent of our nation’s population.

Too often, journalists who face obstacles to access these narratives rely on the powerful institutions at their center for information. We wind up parroting reports from institutions like the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We take whatever information we are given about what happens inside: often, a name, an age, a crime, and a sentence.

“It’s frankly an abdication of journalistic responsibility to adopt the language of law enforcement simply because of logistical barriers to first-hand accounts, or to establish a shorthand,” King said. “The language was created for a dual purpose: to hide from the outside world just how violent this state function is, and to make it more palatable for the prison staff to carry out this function.”

Language has the power to obscure the humanity of, and, often, culpability for, an event behind institutional jargon. This obfuscation helps justify and perpetuate these very systems.

The Solution

When following prison narratives, criminal justice advocates ask that journalists use human-centered language: such as “incarcerated person,” “person in prison,” or “person with a conviction.” 

Some may argue that it’s impractical to ask an entire body of news outlets to change the words they use and to shift to person-first coverage. But there’s an established precedent for it.

Prior to 2013, most mainstream American media outlets (including the Associated Press) used the phrase “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented people. Until 2013, you could pick up a newspaper or switch on the TV and hear about people, often children, exclusively in the context of a law. But some journalists and advocates pointed out the harmful dehumanization perpetuated by this phrase and were successful. The AP Stylebook formally changed its guidelines from “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented person,” in April 2013.

Similarly, in 2017, the Stylebook removed the words “addict” or “alcoholic,” in favor of “person taking drugs,” to separate the person from their condition. Year after year, the AP has increasingly recognized the value of person-first coverage and incorporated new groups into its guidelines. In 2020, the guide newly advised person-first language when covering people with disabilities. It has yet to make the change for incarcerated people.

Furthermore, news outlets have recognized that person-first language can expose injustices, and power more nuanced narrative frames. The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which traced the intertwined legacies of racism and slavery in the formation of the United States, intentionally referred to “enslaved people” rather than “slaves.” This shift in language matched the goal of the project: to realign the experience of Black Americans to the center of our nation’s narrative history.

In April 2021, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization covering the criminal justice system, became the first mainstream media outlet to make this shift. They published new guidelines outlining the words they use and avoid when covering people and incarceration and, through a series of pieces by those familiar with incarceration, demonstrate the human impact of the words we choose.

A Strictly Editorial Argument

In my own writing and reporting experience, the most intractable objection I’ve heard to making this shift is an editorial one. Some editors, facing time limits on their broadcast or space limitations on a page, will object that these terms, though desirable, are sometimes too “clunky.” But, upon closer examination, these editorial protests don’t hold weight.

In fact, the journalist often does not have to use the “clunky” phrase “incarcerated person” at all. More often, all it takes is writing “person,” “man,” “woman,” or just using their name and making it clear from the context where they are. In fact, referring to people as “prisoners” often becomes unnecessary to the point of redundancy. Soon, you’re getting close to phrases like “prisoners imprisoned in prison.” It’s just bad writing.

Another strictly editorial justification for the shift: terms like “prisoner” or “inmate” are homogenous or unspecific. They not only fail to call to mind a person, but they also fail to include age, gender, background, or any of the other details that power narrative.

As Danielle Sered, Director of Common Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice wrote to the Marshall Project in a 2015 survey of readers’ preferred terms, “…this language is inaccurate because it is incomplete: the elements about a person’s identity that it excludes are entirely relevant to our understanding and decision-making about what to do when that person has broken the law or causes harm.”

The editorial and storytelling justifications are just as strong as the ethical ones. Newsrooms would do well to adapt.

What’s Next?

When I spoke with James King for this piece, it wasn’t the first time we talked. He is one of the men I spoke to while reporting a story during the San Quentin prison outbreak. My story calls him a “former prisoner.”

But King doesn’t hold it against me. He said that this isn’t the first time that reporters have come to him after publication, feeling conflicted by the language normalized in their newsrooms.

Last July, the Ella Baker Center published press guidelines: “COVID-19 & Commitment to Using Human-Centered Language When Reporting.”

“We are challenging reporters who write about these topics to change the way they speak about people who are impacted by criminalization and incarceration,” the guidelines read. “While this has always been an important commitment, there is increased urgency in the context of a pandemic that so disproportionately threatens the lives of incarcerated people.”

Despite his misgivings, King emphasizes that we need the journalism outlets to bring these injustices to light. Great reporting held the prison system to account for the factors that accelerated the crisis —acknowledging patterns of overcrowding, poor living conditions, and lack of access to adequate healthcare. Some of this essential reporting emerged from inside the prison itself: in the dispatches published by Juan Moreno Haines, a journalist currently incarcerated in San Quentin. And, King noted, some of the best pandemic reporting still used outdated terms, but doggedly pushed past official state narratives.

But, as the deaths and illnesses of so many men and women have made clear, the words we use matter, too. When we perpetuate the prison system’s language, we fail to fully check it. And, when offered the chance to save human lives, whether we call them human or, as Newsom said, “violent criminals,” matters.

“If you’re striving for accuracy, and people make the case that these words aren’t accurate, journalists have a responsibility to listen,” King said.

King hopes that a shift in language, and coverage, will help effect a broader societal reckoning. One where, forced to look plainly into the face of systemic dehumanization and marginalization, citizens question the authority of the carceral state.

It’s also an opportunity for us to practice better journalism. We have a chance to hold institutions to account, and to represent humans as they are: varied, complex, and redeemable.

Brett Simpson is a health, environment, and human rights reporter based in San Francisco, California. Her print and audio reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Reveal, The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, KALW, and more. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Holly Piepenburg.

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