05 August, 2022

Prisoner, Inmate, Offender – Why?

Just as all words in English have, popular terms for the incarcerated have changed over time. Not long before I came to prison, people in Missouri's carceral system were referred to as inmates. Years before that, the official term used was prisoner. There were, when I first came down, still a few official forms with "Inmate Name" fields on them; however, preference for a different euphemism had been decreed from on high. I'm guessing that someone in the capital formed a committee to come up with it. For several reasons, I don't find it appropriate.

I remember watching an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (this was years ago, obviously) on which Jon discussed with a guest the isolation of sex offenders in America. The guest explained how, due to registration laws and parole conditions governing people convicted of sex crimes, ad-hoc communities of sex offenders have formed around the country, in locations sufficiently distant from schools, playgrounds, et cetera, to satisfy legal restrictions. It was an interesting subject, but what stuck with me was Jon's linguistic sidebar. He asked if offender was the best word we could use, as in: "Oh, I'm so offended!" He raised a good point.

Offender does seem simultaneously inadequate and overbearing. Maybe societal associations are responsible. Years of referring to the most odious crimes as sex offenses might've tainted the word. Now, labeling someone an offender for stealing a lawn mower sounds needlessly extreme. At the same time, offended hardly describes a victim of sexual assault. Especially considering how motivated people are to quell imprecise language these days, I'm surprised that no one's rallied for a change in this instance.

Oxford defines a prisoner primarily as "a person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial." Prison itself traces its linguistic roots to Latin – prensio, "laying hold of." We can find the origin of offender in Latin, too. Offendere meant "strike against," which seems almost sensible in this context, until you think of those prostitutes, drinkers, and petty thieves who get the same label. Against whom did they strike?

Or is morality the thing struck against? There's no question that America's a country greatly concerned with matters of morality, particularly with whose form of morality deserves primacy. I can't possibly hope to argue with the egoism brought to bear on that particular fight. The point of this blog post isn't to launch a salvo at law-and-order types holding firm to loaded language. But I can hope that reason wins out in the end.

All I have to say is that behind the words are people. Not all of us are innocent. Most of us have done bad things some of them horrific but we're all people nonetheless. To lump together the imprisoned multitudes under the offender umbrella is wrong on so many levels.

I propose we return to that straightforward universal standard, prisoner. It neither sugar-coats nor damns. It acknowledges the unvarnished fact: this person is in prison. Well, I suppose many will argue against prison as well, since we now have the correctional center, but that's a dispute for another day.