Using Compassion When Talking About People Who Went to Prison

Sadly, this topic almost requires that I begin with an iron-clad caveat. So first that.

I don’t discredit that some crimes have victims and some people who have committed crimes have hurt people. There should be a consequence for hurting people. I am not discussing that topic in this post right now.

Let’s recall, though, that prison is a giant system for hurting people, including super-guilty people and innocent people or people whose “crimes” had no victim or wouldn’t even be considered “criminal” by many people. The Prison-Industrial-Complex reinforces almost every system of oppression that operates in our society, actively making life worse for poor people, trans people, people of color, etc. In prison, rape and violence is rampant. Your rights are routinely violated. You have no privacy. You cannot access acceptable healthcare. You cannot get healthy food. You may be forced into neo-enslavement-style work programs. You live in a box and locks, bars, cuffs, and chains are part of your daily existence. Your connection to family, friends and community is a thin thread that could snap at any moment. Your career is FUCKED.

People in prison are still people, and people who have survived prison are still people. Extremely *vulnerable* people whom it is legal to discriminate against when it comes to housing, employment, education, child custody and government benefits. I think, Big Picture, that as we fight against the Prison Industrial Complex, we also need to treat people who are or have been in prison a whole lot better, asap. The system has to end, but before it does, real people and their communities are being really harmed right now in real life.

When we send one person to prison, we are not just ending their life as they know it. This hypothetical individual has family and friends. They may be a parent, they may have their own parents and siblings, they have friends and they have connections to a community as well as probably roles in that community via jobs and volunteer work. So we are placing their parents in a state of deep sorrow and loss. We are taking parents away from children, who will feel confused and abandoned. Spouses who depended on their partner’s income to keep a roof over their heads. The whole community is affected if you imprison just one member. It’s a loss that’s like temporary physical death, and on-going social death. A single imprisonment ripples outward in waves of pain, injustice, and misery. A whole family and community is punished along with the targeted individual.

Protip: One way to help individuals and their loved ones from being devastated by this system is to refrain from calling the police unless someone is in literal danger due to another’s behavior. It just isn’t worth fucking up a whole family’s existence over a quality of life complaint.

The wonderful RH Reality Check recently posted an article called Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language to Describe People in Prison by Victoria Law and Rachel Roth. The article discusses the ways words such as “inmate”, “convict”, “criminal”, “felon” and “ex-con” hurt and dehumanize the vulnerable people in the grip of these institutions or who have survived and are trying to live outside the prison system. It also goes straight to people affected by the PIC and highlights their voices.

Advocate Andrea James elaborates, “While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as ‘the inmates.’ It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage.”

Check out RH Reality Check’s series Women, Incarcerated to learn more about how women are treated in the PIC, particularly pregnant and parenting women.