Prison Journalism Navigator
Language Around Incarceration
The Associated Press Stylebook, as of yet, provides no guidance on the language around the incarcerated, but the Society of Professional Journalists emphasizes that reporters treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
If the media were to follow the person-first approach, the practice should be to describe people in prison as “a person who is incarcerated,” “person in prison,” or “incarcerated person,” so we are not stigmatizing people permanently.
In actuality, that doesn’t happen. When FWD.us conducted a search of stories published in 2020 in eight newspapers and wire services including in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, it found more than 10,000 articles that used the terms “inmate,” “felon,” or “offender,” compared to 480 articles that used people-first terms.
At first glance, the terms might seem neutrally factual. The words are also short, succinct and easy to fit into sentences and headlines. But they carry a stigma. How many of us would not cringe or react with fear if they were told that someone had been an “inmate?”
“Words are everything,” said Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of Voice of Experience, a New Orleans-based criminal justice advocacy organization by formerly incarcerated people. “It becomes that adjective that denies you every opportunity that people have been preparing for.” He added that it also feels like people who have been incarcerated are being told to stay in their place.
There is compelling evidence that shows the negative impact of these words on public opinion. In a poll by FWD.us in partnership with Benenson Strategy Group, respondents were evenly split between neutral associations like “needs rehabilitation” and “made a mistake,” when they saw the word “person with a felony conviction.” But 68% of respondents associated the word “felon” with negative impressions like “dangerous,” “scary,” and “serious criminal.” They saw similar trends with other words.
Some incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers prefer terms like “prisoner” over others. But Lawrence Bartley, the director of The Marshall Project’s News Life Inside and a PJP advisor, pointed out that the preferred term among people who are impacted could be different depending on the region.
“Where I was incarcerated, being called an inmate was tantamount to being called a racial slur,” he said, adding that in some Midwestern states, people prefer to be called an inmate rather than a prisoner. “It’s best to simply call people by their names.”
Prison Journalism Project agrees. We, along with many other organizations, recommend using their name or describing them as “person who is incarcerated,” “a person behind bars” or “individual.”
If this seems like a mouthful, Zöe Towns, FWD.us’ senior director for criminal justice reform, would argue that “the issue of word count is just a question of prioritization.”
At the Prison Journalism Project, we have a dual challenge when it comes to this issue of language because we work with writers who have not necessarily put thought into how they would like to be described. In the vast majority of the stories we receive, writers refer to themselves and people inside their community as inmates, convicts, felons and prisoners. A few do it intentionally, but most do it because they’re used to being called by those labels.
“They live in an environment where this is the language,” Henderson said. “That’s all they hear … You are who you think people think you are.”
For the moment, we have published our writers’ work using the terminology that they themselves select. We intend to always respect their choice of words, but we hope to also provide some kind of guidance, so they have the opportunity to be thoughtful in their choices and can join the effort to bring about the necessary change.