Prisoners, convicts, criminals…what should you call us?

What’s in a Word?

The question “Who are you” is never easy. We struggle daily not only with our self-identity but also our understanding of others.

Much of this understanding of the world is given through words that are not our own, but are given to us to speak through. Prisoner, convict, criminal, mother, father, victim, ex-offender, the labels around crime are plentiful, but what do they tell us?

We know the “chair”, the “sky” the “hill”, because when we utter those words we understand each other.

But the rocky outcrop differs to the earthen mound. The rubbish dump is a different quality of hill to the artificial ski slope. “Hill” only tells us so much, and molehills are sometimes turned into mountains, but they’re not the same. “Sky” only tells us so much – it can be stormy, bright, overcast, dark or light. Its quality changes but it remains the sky.

We seem to know what we are – we are people. People, like the hill differ from one another, and like the sky their qualities change according to circumstance.

Criminal Conflagrations

The person with a conviction remains a person, but the criminal justice system, the penal system and society more broadly tends to forget the complexity of the person and the greater complexity of that person in respect of others, replacing him or her with the convict or the offender.

One’s humanity, one’s personhood becomes lost as the status of convict overwhelms every other aspect of being. The person who has killed becomes the murderer, the person who failed to claim income becomes the tax evader, the person who picks up some weed for him and his mates becomes the drug dealer.

All become the offender, the criminal, the convict.

The criminal justice system decides the label, which is then reinforced through probation and the penal system. Those convicted of crimes are “all in it together”, whether or not one has had a moment, made a mistake, or are a “career criminal.”

At a recent screening of Injustice, the Guardian Prison Correspondent, Eric Allison, told me that he’s frequently asked “What do prisoners think about X?” He replies there are no “prisoners”. There are complex individuals with a variety of experiences and diverse perceptions and needs.

But they are all prisoners to the system, as much as they are all offenders to the criminal justice system.

Structured Labels.

The judicial system is a structure bound by words. The judge, the lawyer, the complainant, the defendant, the witness, the evidence and so on position people and things.

The purpose of the court is effectively to ascribe words. A judgement is in many respects a naming process. The verdict is a name-calling process amplified by the media.

The guilty person becomes through the verdict. You are guilty, you are a murderer, a drink driver, a thief and so on.

As one ex-prisoner put it to me, she went in to court as one person, and came out as another. With a not guilty verdict the judge would have politely apologised for the inconvenience and she would have been a good person, but having been found guilty, she became a bad person instead. Yet she remained the same person. She hadn’t changed, but perceptions of her had.

Don’t Let it Define You

Those outside looking in frequently suggest “don’t let it define you”, which is indeed well meant, but of course it is not in the gift of the subject to allow a definition – the definition is imposed.

So the process isn’t just one of ascribing a label, but is a bureaucratic one in which one’s existence is shifted into a system. The crime occurs, it is ordered by the police, interpreted by prosecutors and, despite the objections of the defence, adjudicated by judges whose impression forms the judgement.

A probation officer will sometimes have a 30 minute meeting with the defendant to “make sense” of what happened and recommend a sentence, and that sentence further structures the events, reasons and rationale. Prisoners internalise these structures, ordering those around them.

To be released the prisoner has to demonstrate she or he is not what every aspect of the system says they are. Such an impossible situation is perhaps most keenly demonstrated with IPP prisoners – they’re placed in a dangerous and violent environment and forced to demonstrate they are not dangerous or violent. It is absurd.

On release probation officers, manage “offenders”, leaving the person wondering, if they are an offender, ought they not offend?

Reflections on specific words

The labelling of people within the criminal justice system is both lazy and bureaucratically efficient.

A word must be used to describe people in the system. The sense in which this process is lazy consists in the lack of capacity people have to recognise the complexity of people and the complexity of situations they find themselves in.

In a dark sense, the imposition of labels is generally accepted not just to “other” those in the system but also to differentiate “good” people from bad, citizens from convicts. Ostracisation and othering makes people feel better about their own selves.

For a bureaucracy to work it needs words to organise its subjects. Such words don’t need to be accurate but rather efficient, even just at the level of the size of forms or the ease of discussing subjects themselves – it is inefficient to refer to the “person who made a mistake” or “the chaotic homeless woman whose life circumstances meant she could either take the food from the supermarket or have her children go hungry”. It is time consuming to bumble through such lengthy, if accurate descriptions.

Perhaps most striking is the form of words ascribed to people who have committed crimes – they are continuous words – the person who killed is the murderer, as if having done it once it is what they do. The offender offends. The person who offended offended. There’s a difference.

If she is the murderer, the thief, the fraudster, the rapist, then it’s what she is, what she does and presumably will continue to do.

Of course there are those who repeatedly or habitually commit crimes, but then we’re in a chicken and egg situation.

But the criminal justice and penal systems fail to understand nuance in a meaningful sense. Of course judgements and sentencing guidelines sometimes recognise circumstance, but ultimately the system has to say you’re one thing or another – guilty or not guilty, perpetrator or victim. And certainly by the time the news reports the verdict the label is set.

Yet we distinguish a footballer, Brian, who plays weekly for money from Peter, who played football that one Sunday afternoon when he was 13 years old. Peter isn’t regarded as a footballer, even though he played football once. If Peter were to introduce himself as a footballer or later as an ex-footballer he would not be credible.

But the person who has murdered once is the murder. They’ll be seen as a murderer, there is a record of them as a murderer, the papers say they are a murderer, even Google says they are a murder, so if at every turn that is what one is, why change?


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