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What Did You Call Me?

An incarcerated person writes about how dehumanizing language like “inmate” is destructive.

  • Rahsaan “New York” Thomas
June 1, 2021
View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

It all starts with a label. Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Amer­ican slavery all hold that in common. In each case, targeted groups were assigned names that had the psycho­lo­gical effect of dehu­man­iz­ing. Once you’re not seen as a human, you don’t see your­self as human — and inhu­man treat­ment begins that could cause your end. 

Mass incar­cer­a­tion star­ted with labels, too. The n-word accom­pan­ied the Black Code laws that returned freed slaves to plant­a­tions to work the fields, unpaid (under “convict leas­ing” schemes) for minor, often made-up offenses like vagrancy or not sign­ing a labor contract with a white plant­a­tion owner. Under Nixon, when it had become polit­ic­ally incon­veni­ent to call Black people the n-word, they called us “crim­in­als” and proceeded to build pris­ons focused on punish­ment instead of rehab­il­it­a­tion to discip­line beha­vior born of oppres­sion and intergen­er­a­tional trauma, rather than offer­ing repar­a­tions or heal­ing. The tag “super-pred­at­ors” launched the lock­ing up of kids, senten­cing teen­agers to multiple life terms, then hous­ing them in adult insti­tu­tions. One label ran along­side all the others and helped balloon the prison popu­la­tion in Amer­ica to over 2.3 million. That term is “inmate.” 

Webster’s defines “inmate” as “a person confined with others in a prison or mental insti­tu­tion.” But call­ing a person an inmate does­n’t describe where you are, it says who you are. It iden­ti­fies you as your incar­cer­a­tion, as an outcast. 

Not all labels are harm­ful, of course. Call­ing someone a student or a mother brings up posit­ive images and reac­tions. Not so the word “inmate.”

With over 20 years in prison and count­ing, I hear correc­tional officers use the word constantly with an inflec­tion in their voice that sounds like they’re talk­ing about someone less than human. I remem­ber a correc­tional officer giving a new CO a tour of the media center at San Quentin. “This is where the inmates record the ‘Ear Hustle’ podcast,” he said, mean­ing to express pride in what we did — but because of his use of the word “inmate,” what I heard in my mind was, “This is where the monkeys we trained record ‘Ear Hustle’.”

Correc­tion officers are trained not to see us as human; it helps them do their jobs. They are trained to be able to pepper spray or even shoot us without warn­ing, if it appears neces­sary. It helps them main­tain that “profes­sional” distance by seeing us as differ­ent from them, less than them, as “inmates.”

I think soci­ety must see people in correc­tional facil­it­ies as less than human as well. Even some social justice advoc­ates and news report­ers use “inmate” without regard for the damage it causes. I’ve seen incar­cer­ated people intern­al­ize that word, lose touch with their person­hood, and do noth­ing with their prison time but mop floors. 

If you think that word is harm­less, close your eyes and tell me what image comes to mind when you hear the word “inmate.”

Language is obvi­ously import­ant. Why do news­pa­pers and even the Cali­for­nia prison system respect the pronouns and language of the LGBTQ community? Why did news report­ers stop call­ing undoc­u­mented immig­rants “illeg­als”?

As Emile DeWeaver poin­ted out in his article “Moving the Needle on Black Liber­a­tion,” mass incar­cer­a­tion harms more Black people than police shoot­ings. In 2017, the police killed 112 Black people but imprisoned nearly a million. People get lynched in “courtrooms around the coun­try Monday – Friday,” raps Plies in his hit “100 Years.” Yet, as I watch my 15-inch flat screen TV from the top bunk of a 6 x 9 cell, I don’t see armies of protest­ers march­ing against the much larger prob­lem of mass incar­cer­a­tion. 

I believe we allowed mass incar­cer­a­tion to happen right in front of our faces because we lost sight that pris­ons contain people. We lost sight of the inhu­man­ity of putting a 16-year-old in an adult maximum-secur­ity prison or senten­cing a burg­lar to 66 years to life. We didn’t care about “inmates,” because we forgot they’re human beings. 

Call­ing someone housed in a correc­tion facil­ity “a person in prison” or an “incar­cer­ated person” is very differ­ent from call­ing him or her an “inmate.” If we use “person” as the noun and “incar­cer­ated” as the adject­ive, we keep their human­ity front and center.

We are people despite our mistakes. I’ve been in hundreds of prison self-help group sessions and heard the back­stor­ies of hundreds of men incar­cer­ated for viol­ent crimes. They all even­tu­ally took account­ab­il­ity for the harm they caused. Remorse drives many of them to help stop cycles of further viol­ence. From hear­ing their back­stor­ies and study­ing beha­vi­oral science, I see their human­ity and that they often commit­ted crimes for really human reas­ons. When we call any of them “inmate,” we discon­nect from the person and we don’t take account­ab­il­ity for our role in fail­ing them before they made the decision that failed us.

Consider my own circum­stances. Grow­ing up, I was a nerd who atten­ded Cath­olic schools from 1st grade through the 11th. I played video games on a Commodore 64 computer, rode a skate­board, collec­ted Marvel comic books, watched Star Trek, played Dungeons & Dragons just like the guys in The Big Bang Theory.

However, I grew up in the New York City’s murder capital — Browns­ville, Brook­lyn. Being an awkward, extra-light-skinned kid was hell. I faced bully­ing daily. When bullied, when robbed, when beat up, I had three choices: endure phys­ical harm, call the cops and face ridicule from the police and ostra­cism from my peers, or fight back. I chose to become pugna­cious towards the oppres­sion. Although I have always hated viol­ence, I hated feel­ing help­less and being bullied even more. So, I fought my neigh­bor — for accept­ance, for respect, and to be left alone.

Things accel­er­ated when I was 17. A 16-year-old with a gun tried to rob me and my little brother. I refused to give up my gold ring; I ran, my little brother was shot. After that day, I star­ted carry­ing a gun and using it when faced with similar circum­stances. Fast forward to age 29, when two armed men were robbing my friend right before my eyes. I opened fire, killing one and wound­ing the other.

Today I real­ize that my real enemies weren’t my neigh­bors or the police. The real enemies were post-Jim Crow segreg­a­tion accom­plished through redlining, employ­ment discrim­in­a­tion, poli­cing policies rooted in main­tain­ing white suprem­acy, gun show loop­holes, address­ing crim­inal beha­vior and addic­tion through viol­ence, the lack of emotional intel­li­gence educa­tion in the school-to-prison pipeline, felony disen­fran­chise­ment and untreated trauma.

My growth took place in prison. However, it wasn’t by design. I star­ted my time in a maximum-secur­ity prison want­ing help, but all they had was Narcot­ics Anonym­ous, Alco­hol­ics Anonym­ous, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. It took 13 years for me to reach San Quentin and get real help, real oppor­tun­it­ies, and only by God’s grace did I make it here. I owe San Quentin for being a unique correc­tional facil­ity that offers me unique oppor­tun­it­ies. In the last seven years here, I’ve accom­plished so much, includ­ing gradu­at­ing from college, getting nomin­ated for a Pulitzer Prize, effect­ively coun­sel­ing kids through the SQUIRES program, creat­ing a program empower­ing incar­cer­ated artists, complet­ing 10 self-help groups, and more. Yet some still call me an “inmate.” Good thing I know I’m not, or I would have wasted these last 20 years just mopping floors and getting face tattoos.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is the co-host and co-produ­cer of the Pulitzer Prize-nomin­ated podcast Ear Hustle, as well as a contrib­ut­ing writer for the Marshall Project and San Quentin News. He is currently incar­cer­ated, and a legal campaign seek­ing help to secure his free­dom can be found here.