For a long time we have allowed our reporters and contributors at the San Quentin News to use their own discretion when it comes to using the term “inmate” to describe someone who is incarcerated in a jail or prison.
This has led to a lack of unity in our messaging and a lack of unity among our media center personnel here at San Quentin. I believe that continuing to allow this word to be used is detrimental to the movement to have all people housed in jails or prisons recognized as human beings. It is detrimental to the rebranding of San Quentin as a rehabilitation center.
The word “inmate” has a negative connotation and is used to describe someone as non-human, mentally ill or deranged and in need of an institution. This word does not allow for human progress or rehabilitation and does not easily fit within the confines of promoting health and wellness. Some people say the word refers to people who occupy a single place of residence, or who reside in a hotel. However, no hotel employee would ever call its guests “inmates.”
“Inmate” is a word used for those who are incapacitated, punished, and subjected to retributive justice. It is used to describe those who have traditionally been tortured, put in dungeons, hanged, electrocuted, or subjected to lethal injections. An “inmate” is someone sentenced to indeterminate SHU programs, who experiences extended stays in long-term solitary confinement and is subjected to psychological torture. “Inmates” are paraded around prison facilities in their boxers and T-shirts, with chains wrapped around their bodies. In California, this is changing and therefore the term is no longer politically correct.
The Legislature just gave Gov. Gavin Newsom $380 million dollars to build a rehabilitation center focused on humanity, health, wellness and being a good neighbor. Over the next few years an advisory committee will be designing a new California Model. With that said, how we use language to refer to people housed in prison will affect their ability to be made whole by a system of rehabilitation, health and wellness.
The state of New York stopped using the word “inmate” last year. They amended several state laws to remove the word and replace it with “incarcerated person” to refer to people serving time, to reduce the stigma of being in jail.
“The word has a dehumanizing effect,” New York’s Gov. Kathy Hochel said. “It can feel degrading being referred to by guards as ‘inmate,’ especially in front of their families during in-person visits. If we are going to focus on rehabilitation in this state, language matters.”
The San Quentin News also has a responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect. “Inmate” is not a term of endearment. It is not a term that fulfills our mission of highlighting the lives and voices of incarcerated human beings, or increasing public safety and advancing social justice.
We will strive to do better. We will keep in step with the movement to change the narrative by referring to the incarcerated as people.
For those conservative politicians and survivors of crime who argue that removing the word “inmate” from use somehow coddles criminals, I say the only way to teach someone to act like a human being is to treat them like one. You cannot expect rehabilitation, empathy or compassion to spring forth from a faucet of hatred and retributive justice.