The Washington Department of Corrections wants to stop using the word 'offender' when referring to those who are incarcerated.
Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan told agency employees in a memo Tuesday the word will be replaced in policies and programs with terms such as “individuals,” “students” or “patients” depending on the circumstances.
And he encouraged corrections officers to call those serving time by their names and “practice replacing or removing the word ‘offenders’ from your communication and presentations to others.”
“Unfortunately, what starts as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “As a stereotype, ‘offender’ is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied.
“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’ ” he wrote.
His decision comes amid a national conversation among correction officials on how the use of certain terms can make it difficult for a person to reintegrate in society upon completing their prison term.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced in May the federal Office of Justice Programs would no longer refer to released prisoners as “felon” or “convict.” Instead, terms like “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” would be used. ...
“Rather than use a term that could be offensive or could lead to a stereotype, let’s use a term that can point to a different future for that person who is working to rehabilitate,” Barclay said. “Ninety-five percent of these individuals will be people living next to other people in the community.” [My emphasis.]A freshening breeze! Let's not label people in a way that will feed stereotypes that make their lives more difficult at a time when we should be encouraging them to improve their circumstances.
And then the hammer comes down.
The term won’t disappear completely as registered sex offenders will still be identified in that manner.
“That won’t change. They will be known as a registered sex offender,” Barclay said. “That is codified in law.”He is right. State and federal laws apply the sex offender label. Even if prisons are able to stop using the term, those convicted of sex offenses will face the cold wind of reality on the outside.
Sex offenders will also be living in the community, trying to become a productive member of society again. The language in sex offender laws works against them.
That is the way labels work.
What do victim advocates think of this change in wording?
Marge Fairweather is executive director of the Everett-based Victim Support Services. Founded in 1975, the nonprofit is the oldest victim advocacy agency in the state.Trying to soften the impact? She ignores the impact incarceration itself has, no matter which words are used. Being separated from loved ones is the punishment.
She takes exception to language in the memo in which the corrections secretary used the term “people in our care” to describe inmates.
“Are they really in your care or are they in your custody?” she said. “It seems they are trying to soften the impact of what the individual has done.”
And yes, inmates are people in our care. When someone is removed from the community and any chance to care for him or herself, they are in our care. The fact of being incarcerated does not mean it is moral to treat inmates poorly.
To Fairweather, they are still serving time for an offense they have committed. That makes them offenders while they are in the prison system.What it is?
“At the end of the day, they have victimized someone and they have offended someone’s rights,” Fairweather said. “Why not call it what it is?”
Here is what it is: Most inmates will return to the community. Do you want them to come back having had no encouragement that they can change? Treating them--and referring to them--as human beings is encouraging them.
Instead of sending an inmate back to family and employers as someone constantly reminded of something he surely cannot forget, let's send him back as someone who was constantly reminded that he is a person, capable of bettering himself.
Saying that he is in our care will not erase his memory.