People-First Language

By Sarah Hubert

Why is it so important to use People-First Language? If you read our article on the 10 Things You Can Do to Help Prison Reform, you know that it’s important to put the individual above their criminal history or incarceration status. 

Everyone is so much more than their actions. Returning citizens face a wide variety of difficulties, including discrimination based on their ex-offender status. It’s important that as advocates we use language that prioritizes human beings. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use people-first language.

Examples of People-First Language

Use ThisNot That
Former offender
Returning citizen
Person
Ex-offender
Inmate
Convict
Felon
Offender
Prisoner
Con
Criminal

If it’s not relevant to what you are talking about, don’t bring up their incarceration status at all! Here at FPEP, we talk about our students all of the time without using language to indicate that they are incarcerated unless it’s absolutely necessary to the conversation. If you’re talking about the firefighters in California, you can just call them firefighters. If you are talking about someone you know who has a criminal history, try to put who they are and what they do in life above anything that may have occurred in their past.

Additionally, it is important that we gently correct people in our lives when they misuse this language. It’s not acceptable to use racial slurs, ableist language, or sexist speech in our lives, so we should not permit the use of outdated language in regards to ex-offenders.

Some people prefer to use terms like “inmate” and “convict” to describe themselves. This is similar to other historically oppressed groups that have chosen to reclaim slurs against their identities. However, unless you belong to the group, or someone has expressly told you they prefer these terms, it is not appropriate to use this language.

If someone you know insists on one term over another, respect their preference. The criminal justice system disenfranchises people in a methodical way, so it is important to give the power back to the people as much as possible.

For more information, check out The Osbourne Association, the Prison Studies Project, and The Marshall Project.

Panelists at FPEP’s College Behind Bars event, where People-First Language came into the discussion.

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