The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs announced in May that it will no longer use words such as “felon” or “convict” to refer to people released from prison.
Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason wrote in a guest piece for the Washington Post that the nation bears a responsibility to reduce both physical and psychological barriers to reintegration.
The American Bar Association has documented more than 46,000 barriers that formerly incarcerated citizens face after they’ve paid their societal debts, Mason noted.
“These legal and regulatory barriers are formidable, but many of the formerly incarcerated men, women and young people I talk with say that no punishment is harsher than being permanently branded a ‘felon’ or ‘offender,’” Mason wrote.
Eddie Ellis, a criminal justice advocate who was imprisoned for 23 years for a murder he maintained he did not commit, began a movement a decade ago with a widely circulated “open letter” urging people to abandon nouns like “convict,” reported The New York Times. Ellis believed such terms erased the humanity of formerly imprisoned people.
“The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me,” Ellis wrote, “is that I begin to believe it myself, ‘for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’”
John W. Parrat Jr., an incarcerated American and member of social justice group Alliance for Change, appreciates the policy change. He describes words like “felon,” “convict” and “inmate” as words that erase individuals and replace them with everyone’s worst hatreds and fears. “It’s almost like using the N-word,” he said.
Correctional Sgt. S. Hasan has worked for CDCR for 30 years and is currently assigned to the North Block dining hall. “I never use words like ‘convict’ or ‘inmate,’” Hasan said. “You ask anyone who works for me, I call them workers.”
Michael Calvin Holmes works as a clerk in San Quentin’s Education Department. He helps incarcerated men gain access to college through correspondence courses. He also agrees that being branded a “felon” is worse than the 46,000 barriers to reintegration that he will one day face, which include penalties like disenfranchisement, employment prohibitions and housing restrictions.
“All these problems are caused by that label,” Holmes said. “It feels bad because I know I’ve changed and progressed, but it feels like nobody else does. It’s just hard.”
When Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivered a speech in April about re-entry programs, she avoided objectifying nouns like “felon,” reported The New York Times. Lynch instead referred to formerly incarcerated Americans as “citizens.”
“The reference to former inmates as ‘citizens’ was strikingly humanizing,” wrote the Editorial Board of the Times.
“I like that,” said Holmes, when he heard about the Attorney General’s speech. “I am a citizen. I live in America. When I was a criminal, I didn’t think like I do now, and I deserved to be incarcerated when I was arrested. But the men incarcerated in here with me, the volunteers and counselors, they helped me change the way I see things.
“The reference to former inmates as ‘citizens’ was strikingly humanizing”
“I would like to be called a citizen now and when I get out,” Holmes continued.
Zachariah Casey McCormack is an incarcerated American who earned his GED in 2000. He spends his time tutoring other incarcerated men, so they can earn their GEDs. He also likes the idea of being called a citizen. He appreciates the Justice Department’s effort to humanize incarcerated people.
“Some people get out of prison and commit crimes, and they are criminals,” McCormack said. “But if we’ve used our time well in prison, and we’ve rehabilitated ourselves, then we’re not criminals anymore.”
McCormack acknowledges that it may be hard for the public to tell the difference between who is rehabilitated and who is not. His message to America: “Give us a little time, let us show you.”