At Chosen Narrative, we're committed to using language and storytelling to educate, induce empathy and inspire change.
Advocates have argued that choice of language can have stigmatizing effects that can negatively impact a person's ability to participate in social life and prevent them from reaching their full personhood. The World Health Organization recommends that language should not discriminate against stereotype or demean people based on age, ethnicity, gender, sex or sexual orientation and physical or intellectual impairments.
However, it doesn't specifically address the impact that stigmatizing language has on people involved in the criminal justice system. We hope to use language to empower people in the criminal justice system - and beyond.
There are certain words that were regularly used throughout history but have since been removed from everyday vocabulary, and for very good reason. In fact, using some of these discriminatory terms can trigger violent responses, inspire hatred and solidify stereotypes.
Words used in the system
How much thought do you give when referring to an incarcerated individual? Do you consider how the act of branding a person will impact their identity as well as their ability to overcome existing challenges?
Consider the words typically used for people in jail and/or prison:
These words are more weighted than they seem.
A little bit of independent thought can challenge social conditioning. A recent series published by The Marshall Project sheds light on the power of language, and why it matters when talking about the criminal justice system - and those involved.
The death of George Floyd kickstarted a new wave of social justice, activism and increased awareness of criminal justice. Since then, various individuals and groups have used the momentum to push for policy change and raise awareness on concerning issues with existing systemic “justice”.
What many don’t realize is that the current movement is another milestone in a very long journey striving toward social justice.
Language of incarceration
Senior lecturer at University of Essex , Alexandra Cox, explores the language of incarceration, saying, “Radical prison activists in the 1960s and 1970s used the official language of the prison state to challenge its power."
She notes that leaders also strived for reform, with President Obama writing an article in the Harvard Law Review about criminal justice reform strategies, invoking language such as “formerly incarcerated individuals”.
Read more about Alexandra’s think piece of using “people first” language in the context of incarceration for context on a historical and contemporary perspective.