Words Matter: Using Humanizing Language

Today, there are approximately two million people incarcerated in the United States’ jail and prison system. People with criminal justice histories are referred to in an array of dehumanizing labels, such as “inmates,” “criminals,” “prisoners,” “convicts,” “delinquents,” “felons,” and “offenders.” Even after people complete their sentence of incarceration and return to the community, oftentimes these labels follow. Terms like “ex-inmates,” “ex-prisoners,” “ex-convicts,” “ex-felons,” and “ex-offenders” are used to categorize and stigmatize people affected by the criminal justice system.

Dehumanizing labels stereotype and marginalize people rather than support them while they rebuild their lives. Individuals with justice system involvement are not defined by their conviction history. The words we use to reference people should reflect their full identities, and acknowledge their capacity to change and grow.

Be mindful of how you speak about The Fortune Society’s mission, the people we serve, our dedicated staff, and board members. We encourage you to use humanizing language—your example will inspire others.

 Offender, Inmate, Felon, Criminal, Convict, Prisoner, Delinquent  Person or individual with justice system involvement; Person or individual impacted by the justice system; Person or individual affected by the justice system
 Ex-offender, Ex-con, Ex-Offender, Ex-Prisoner  Person or individual with prior justice system involvement; Person or individual previously incarcerated; Person or individual with justice history
 Parolee, Probationer, Detainee Person or individual on parole; Person or individual currently under parole supervision; Person or individual on probation; Person or individual in detention
 Juvenile Offender, Juvenile Delinquent  Young person with justice system involvement; Young adult impacted by the justice system
 Sex Offender  Person or individual with sex offense conviction(s); Person previously convicted of a sex offense(s)
 Mentally Ill  Person or individual with mental health needs; Person or individual in need of/currently receiving mental health services
 Homeless  Person currently or previously experiencing homelessness
 HIV/AIDS patient; Infected with HIV/AIDS  Person or individual living with HIV; Person or individual living with AIDS
 Addict; Substance Abuser  Person with a history of substance use

Download this chart in .pdf format here.

Additional Resources

The Fortune Society’s “WORDS MATTER” guide

An Open Letter to our Friends on the Question of Language,” from The Center For NuLeadership on Urban Solutions

Language Guide for Communicating About Those Involved In The Carceral System, from Underground Scholars

Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence,” a New York Times Editorial

The following two episodes of our monthly television program, Both Sides of the Bars, provide further insight on the impact that humanizing language has on individuals with justice involvement.

Learn how Fortune Society can help you