We Are People: Resources for Humanizing Language

12 November 2015

“What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime—incarcerated *people*, *people* with felony convictions, *people* on parole, even *people* who have caused great harm and should be held meaningfully accountable. Any truly effective policy solutions will make central the humanity of everyone directly impacted by crime—including those who commit it."


 - Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice, excerpted from The Marshall Project’s Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

For many years, Osborne has joined with fellow criminal justice organizations to promote the use of humanizing, neutral, person-first language for individuals involved in the criminal justice system. We are at a turning point in the national conversation on criminal justice. For individuals and organizations working to dismantle mass incarceration and support the people it affects, there is clear value in respecting and believing in human dignity: to offer opportunities that honor all of our capacities to change.

Yet this goal—and our mission to create a safer and more just world—is undermined when we use language that emphasizes incarceration over personhood. If we accept—as individuals, organizations, or passive consumers of media outlets that promote our work—the use of marginalizing language, we fail to uphold these values and miss the opportunity to align our thoughts, words, and actions for an impact toward safety and justice for all. 

The Opportunity Agenda offers a creative framing of this call through their Tips for Talking Criminal Justice Reform Issues. Their toolkit includes a comic book personification of their mission—the superhero Helvetika Bold. Bold uses inspiring and hopeful stories to confront Mindset, a cartoon villain who embodies “the dominant narrative, which focuses people away from the true causes of inequality by laying blame on the people most affected by it.“ Language that relegates people as “ex-cons,” “criminals,” or “felons” neatly serves Mindset’s work.

For many, it feels reasonable to accept “ex-con” or “inmate” as common parlance. And some formerly incarcerated people claim these words as their own and use them in their own speech. But we also know the effect that such language has, because we work with people every day who are rebuilding lives of responsibility and contribution. We ask you to join us in using thoughtful language when working with or speaking about people who have some prior criminal justice involvement. Here’s why: too often, people who come home from prison are all-too-accustomed to being called strongly negative terms that easily and often evoke precisely the dehumanizing and demoralizing effect desired by those who speak them. Words such as these negate the fuller identity of the person, who may be a child, a parent, a student, a teacher, an advocate, and more. They hurt the individuals who hear them and the families of people who are in prison. Osborne joins with other organizations to say that this language is no longer acceptable in a society that believes in second chances.

In his TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About an Injustice,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, asserts there is a relationship between identity labels on human dignity, and its protection under law. He said:

“ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone's humanity… I've come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.”

Creative resources like The Opportunity Agenda’s toolkit and comic book build on work such as The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS) Language Letter Campaign, and there are now many communications resources available to inform the ongoing national dialogue. The Marshall Project’s public discussion on language reveals how nuanced and personal our language preferences can be. The Advancement Project and The Opportunity Agenda’s Social Justice Phrase Guide call for accurately and respectfully talking about people’s identities, not only by dropping ableist and culturally inappropriate idioms, but by eliminating terms that label people by past or current convictions posed against them.

These resources—and several others from our community listed below—promote humanizing, neutral, person-first language for individuals involved in the criminal justice system. We encourage you to share the resources with your network, and to let us know if there are resources you have found helpful that we should include. The New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents is working to lift the voices of children affected by parental incarceration in this conversation, and you can get involved in their effort by emailing ahollihan@osborneny.org. We invite you to connect with us via twitter and facebook to amplify calls to action on social media. 



Resources for Humanizing Language 


  • Hashtags to watch: #WeArePeople, #LanguageMatters, #WordsMatter, #PersonFirst, #PeopleFirst, #ThePowerofLanguage, #HumanLanguage

    Please let us know if there are other hashtags you or your organization use when promoting the importance of bias-free language.
  • The Language Letter Campaign
    The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS) 
    Includes Downloadable Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language authored by CNUS Founder and social justice leader Eddie Ellis, and 4 Easy Steps To Follow.
  • The Social Justice Phrase Guide
    The Advancement Project, and The Opportunity Agenda’s 5 Guidelines for Conscientious Communications to help us advance a social justice agenda.
  • Language Matters
    Excerpted from the Abolish the Box Student Organizing Toolkit
    Education from the Inside Out Coalition. Includes points of reflection and a downloadable language diagram.
  • Words Matter Guide
    Excerpted from The Fortune Society’s Reentry Education Project Provider Kit 
    Includes guidance on language that is helpful and less-helpful in supporting health and well-being, as well as language to use when discussing criminal justice involvement, substance use and mental health, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health.
  • Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed. What to call incarcerated people: Your feedback
    The Marshall Project issued a call for responses asking the best way to refer to people behind bars.
    Here they share a sample of the responses which indicated that of the options they offered, 38 percent of respondents preferred “incarcerated person,” 23 percent liked “prisoner” and nearly 10 percent supported use of the word inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”).
  • Remembering Eddie Ellis and the power of language
    Danielle Sered, Vera Institute of Justice
    This blog honors Ellis’ leadership around language sharing Common Justice program’s use of the language “harmed party” and “responsible party,” throughout their restorative justice practice.
  • Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language to Describe People in Prison
    Victoria Law and Rachel Roth respond to the language used in RH Reality Check’s investigative series, “Women, Incarcerated,” referencing The Center for NuLeadership, open letter and The Fortune Society’s “Words Matter“ guide.
  • Talking Human Services
    A Frameworks MessageMemo
    The Frameworks Institute with support from the Kresge and Annie E. Casey Foundations created this resource to help communicators move beyond the outdated charity-based narrative about human services toward a building wellbeing narrative that emphasizes human services benefit us all.
  • An Overview of Public Opinion and Discourse on Criminal Justice Issues
    The Opportunity Agenda
    This report analyzes public opinion research and makes recommendations for where opportunities exist to shift discourse on criminal justice reform. It includes a recommendation to: 

    Explore ways to bring people with a conviction into the conversation. A pronounced stigma is attached to serving a prison sentence, and one constructive way to destigmatize reentry and “de-otherize” is to bring people with convictions into the conversation. Give incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals a forum to “come out” and show the world that they also are people. Explore meaningful and constructive ways to talk about people with convictions, rather than avoid them.
  • People first: Changing the way we talk about those touched by the criminal justice system
    The Urban Institute
    This blog includes the Urban Institute's announcement of their commitment to using words that respect the dignity of all people, specifically people affected by the criminal justice system. The Urban Institute has provided economic and social policy research to "open minds, shape decisions, and offer solutions" since 1968. 
  • The Other F-word
    The Marshall Project
    This blog by Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, discusses the evolution of language usage in mainstream media, specifically in reference to people who are incarcerated. 
  • Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence
    The New York Times
    The New York Times Editorial Board discusses how the stigmatizing way we speak about people who are formerly incarcerated presents a significant barrier when they are reentering their communities.
  • Justice Dept. agency to alter its terminology for people who are released from prison or jail
    The Washington Post 
    Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who has headed the Office of Justice Programs since 2013, announces in a guest post for The Washington Post that her agency will no longer use words such as “felon” or “convict” to refer to people who are released from prison or jail.
  • Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections to discard terms ‘offender,’ ‘felon’ in describing formerly incarcerated people
    The Washington Post 
    The head of the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, Secretary John E. Wetzel announces his decision to join the movement to use people-first language when referring to people who are affected by the criminal justice system.

Are there resources you’d like to see added here? Please email us to let us know.