This is the third and final entry in a series of blog posts reflecting on findings from our recent report on state media review directives, Security and Censorship. The first blog post announced the report publication, offered key findings, and emphasized how the research connects to broader debates about education, censorship, and policy. The second blog post zoomed in on the report recommendations and model policy, highlighting aspects of the report that may be of most interest to Departments of Corrections staff and administrators.


Recently, a broad cross-section of individuals who report on or study the prison system have highlighted the troubling prevalence of dehumanizing language used to refer to people in prisons. The Marshall Project’s blog series, “The Language Project,” provides context on the impact of this language. In addition to journalists and advocates, the issue has been directly addressed by both state DOC leaders and law enforcement agencies. In this blog post we join the dialogue, bringing insights from the scan of media review directives that formed the basis of our recent report, Security and Censorship, and situating them among a broader conversation about stigma and the real impacts of language. Our goal here is to emphasize how the way we talk about, refer to, and report on people who are incarcerated has real impacts.

We strive to incorporate our understanding of humanizing language and its impacts into our everyday operations. In order to take an ethical approach and limit harm while working in proximity to the carceral system, we understand that we need to be deliberate, flexible, and iterative about the language we use to refer to people who are justice-impacted in documentation, policy, and publications.

Policy Scan: Humanizing Language

In our scan of Departments of Corrections media review directives, we found that the language in media review directives lagged behind current practice in the field and, in some cases, even conflicted with other DOC policies. The Department of Corrections for the state of Washington, for example, resolved to stop using the term “Offender” in 2016; however, the term will only be replaced in existing policies as they “come up for review.” Approaches like this may be necessitated by labor limitations or the rules and procedures governing policy revision; however, they nonetheless create a situation where DOC communications and newly created or revised policies using humanizing language exist alongside unrevised policies that continue to deploy harmful terms. This can even lead to situations where humanizing language coexists alongside stereotypical or harmful language in the same document or webpage, for example, the Washington State DOC’s search tool to find “information about currently incarcerated individuals” is still titled “Inmate Search.”

Research suggests that the use of dehumanizing language fosters adversarial relations between an in-group and an out-group. With this context in mind, we analyzed the terms used to refer to people who are incarcerated in media review directives. While this research did not fit the scope of our main report, we present it here with three aims in mind: (1) to emphasize how pervasive the issue is, (2) to open a broader discussion of humanizing language in criminal legal policy, and (3) to contribute to existing discussions of ethics and accountability among journalists and researchers of the field.

Among the policies of the 50 states and Washington DC, six terms are used to refer to people who are incarcerated:*

  • Inmate (29/51): Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia*, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
  • Offender (13/51): Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia*
  • Incarcerated Individual (4/51): Iowa, New York, Ohio, Washington State
  • Prisoner (3/51): Alaska, Maine, Michigan
  • Resident (2/51): Kansas, New Hampshire
  • Individual (1/51): North Dakota


The two most prevalent terms in these policies, inmate and offender, have been written about as objectifying and dehumanizing by journalists and researchers in the field, as well as medical professionals. Terms like these reduce the identities of people who are incarcerated to their existence within the carceral system, through their living conditions (inmate) or the charges they face (offender). Moreover, terms like “offender” and “prisoner” emphasize the perceived social transgressions of people who are incarcerated, reinforcing stigma, despite the fact that jails, prisons, and detention centers hold people for a variety of reasons and not everyone incarcerated is guilty of a crime. “Incarcerated individual” and “resident” are more neutral terms, but they still implicitly define the individual through their status as incarcerated or residing in a facility. The use of “individual” in the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) Facility Handbook stands out as the most humanizing example in our scan. “Individual” emphasizes the humanity of the people who are incarcerated, while also precisely noting that the rules and policies laid out in the handbook apply “to all individuals sentenced to” the custody of the DOCR.

Holding Ourselves Accountable: Tammy’s Perspective

As a person who has been incarcerated and has had a felony conviction on my record for the majority of my adult life, I have personally felt the effects of dehumanizing language. The constant reminders of my past and mistakes I had made created feelings of despair and at times left me feeling hopeless. The struggle to obtain housing, employment, and an education while owning the stigma of being a “felon” or “offender” was real and something that impacted not only me but my children and family members. The ability to have a voice in helping to create guidelines that could help to reduce potential harm inflicted by language has given me immense pleasure and a sense of purpose. Our research regarding access to technology within prisons increased our awareness of how stigmatizing language can impact a person’s life and we recognized quickly that this is something we needed to address in our own practice.

In response, we began to craft an internal policy explaining the impacts dehumanizing language can have on not only individuals, but the communities they are a part of. We also decided in the beginning that it would be beneficial to also have a glossary of terms to use and avoid, so that colleagues could easily identify dehumanizing language and have more humanizing terms readily available. In an effort to make sure we had consensus and leveraged internal knowledge and experience, we engaged with colleagues across ITHAKA and discussed external resources, such as the Marshall Project’s Language Project.

Originally, we did this to ensure we would do as little harm as possible through our own research and to create a shared vocabulary within the Justice Initiatives team. However, when we presented some of our findings internally, we soon realized that people outside of our team were extremely interested in not only including more humanizing language in their own research, but also in their interactions with colleagues. The policy then became a vehicle to communicate with our colleagues and partners about why we use the language we do.

We also wanted to make sure that the document we were creating would be fluid, something that wasn’t necessarily a hard rule, but a living document that could be updated as needed. Many times the impact of language on communities who are historically oppressed becomes more apparent as their voices are heard. This policy is intended to reduce harm, as a way to hold ourselves accountable, and to enable us to continue growing and learning as the dialogue does. One challenge we faced in creating our policy was how to address self-identification. While person-first language can emphasize the humanity of an individual or group, we wanted to ensure that our approach acknowledged the agency of communities and individuals to identify themselves, even when doing so went against what we might consider best practice. Ultimately, we decided to prioritize the individual agency and identity of people who have been incarcerated, and will use their preferred terms when reporting their speech directly.

What to Know Before Making Your Own Policy

This begs the question: what lessons have we learned about humanizing language in relation to researching and working with people who are justice impacted? The most important lesson might simply have been: we need to discuss these things, consciously, deliberately, and regularly. We discovered that having the conversation and determining a collective consensus was crucial to understanding and defining how our communications related to our shared mission. Below, we offer some of our key takeaways on updating language in policy and in practice, in the event that DOCs or other nonprofit organizations find them helpful. In addition to drawing on resources and reporting on dehumanizing language, stigma, and the criminal legal system, our internal conversations were also advanced by Sylvia Wynter’s critique of dehumanizing language in “‘No Humans Involved’ An Open Letter to my Colleagues,” articles from Disability Studies, the debate over Latinx and Latiné in Ethnic Studies and Latiné advocacy circles, and ongoing conversations about gender identity, inclusivity, and dysphoria.

It is important to note that humanizing language policies and practices will likely vary greatly depending on where and how they are being enacted. For example, Departments of Corrections will need to convey a potential policy to a series of different stakeholders and enact it across a sweeping set of documentation that will require long-term strategic planning to implement. Higher education in prison programs, on the other hand, will likely face their biggest challenges in ensuring that all the stakeholders who might engage with students who are system impacted are aware of and prepared to incorporate humanizing language into their communication and documentation practices.

What to Know:

  • Humanizing language policies must be flexible and change with terms and communities. Language is not static and the preferred terminology for communities, and even sub-groups within them, changes. Policies must account for this.
  • Humanizing language is community-specific and individually modulated. A generalized, sweeping policy to approach language will not work across communities and, in some cases, may not work consistently within them.
  • There will be a lag between adopting a humanizing language policy and incorporating it into an organization’s existing documentation, policies, and outputs. Ensure that you allocate time and labor for such changes. If your policy has a sweeping scope, you may need a strategic plan and project management to ensure smooth implementation.
  • Introducing humanizing language in a policy announcement can be construed as corporate virtue signaling or a public relations move. Be sure that you are communicating your policy in the right setting, to the right audience, and for the right reasons. If you haven’t consulted with people belonging to the community or communities that your policy is addressing, take a beat and revisit the plan and its reasoning.
  • If humanizing language becomes euphemistic, it can serve to obscure systemic issues. Most individuals and organizations taking the care to implement humanizing language are doing so in recognition of systemic issues; however, take care to make sure that you foreground the social and systemic in your language policy and practice, so that humanizing language does not serve to obscure systematic oppression.
  • Humanizing language policies must be developed in, with, and by the communities they are meant to serve and address. Unilateral, external decisions about what language is best suited to serve a given community can be paternalistic and problematic. Give the community you are studying or addressing a voice in how you will identify them. If this seems impossible, it might be worth interrogating.
  • Respect self-identification. Some community members may choose to identify themselves with terms that go against your language policy for personal or political reasons; respect those decisions and the political agency of individuals among the affected communities.


*Note: The policies referenced here were up to date to the best of our knowledge in December of 2022. Virginia appears twice in the list because the operating procedure cited comes from a broader set of policies titled “Offender Management and Programs,” while the text of the media review directive itself uses the term “inmate.” See: Virginia Department of Corrections, “Incoming Publications,” Operating Procedure 803.1, effective 1 April 2021.