Inmate, incarcerated person or something else? What should we call people in jail?

Mark Schultz is the western Triangle editor for The Herald-Sun and The News and Observer.
Mark Schultz is the western Triangle editor for The Herald-Sun and The News and Observer. ehyman@newsobserver.com

How should we refer to someone in jail?

In our story on the latest death in the Durham County jail, we referred to a male “inmate” who died Sunday. The man’s name had not been released.

Sunday night, Diane Standaert, the chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission emailed to say it was recently brought to their attention by people who had been incarcerated that the word inmate “removes the human-ness of the fact that it refers to a person and ... that often guards in jails and prisons simply call people ‘inmate,’ in a controlling, dehumanizing way that also makes people nameless.”

The commission updated its recent jail report to change “inmate” to “incarcerated person.”

I told Standaert I was not sure I agreed, but her call made me think about visiting Durham County’s historic Stagville plantation two winters ago and seeing the signs about “enslaved people” – not slaves – for the first time.

That visit led to a story last summer in which Michelle Lanier, executive director of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission, said “enslaved people” emphasize the humanity of people living under bondage.

“One of the worst parts of slavery was that it tried to strip people of their autonomy,” Lanier said. “Using these words is a reminder to look at human experience.”

Webster’s defines inmate as someone in confinement.

But The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit, has wrestled with the same question: What should we call people in jail?

Of the options it offered, 38 percent picked “incarcerated person”; 23 percent, “prisoner”; and nearly 10 percent, inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”)

I went back to our article, which I had cowritten, and saw we had used the word inmate in many cases when “man” would have been sufficient, so I changed some references and left inmate in others.

And I asked those of you who follow me on Facebook what you thought. Here is what some of you said:

DeWarren K. Langley: Detainee

Dan Leonard: Inmate was an old term for a person in a mental hospital.

Jack Wolf: I do some work for the Human Kindness Foundation which does prison outreach and is partially staffed by ex prisoners and the word inmate is used by and about prisoners and seems perfectly acceptable to a group that is dedicated to people in prison. Inmate is short, to the point. The question is whether inmates feel it is a derogatory term and whether they use it themselves, and I think the answer to that would be no and yes.

Chris Weaver: To fret over “harming the feelings” of a fractional population that made poor choices that landed them in jail by using real-world terms to denote them is insanity.

Julie Jarrell Bailey: I think there’s a clearly different meaning for someone who is serving a sentence – an “inmate” or “incarcerated” person - and someone who is legally detained while awaiting trial – a “detainee awaiting trial.” Unfortunately, for many of us, if it hasn’t directly affected us, we tend to not be too concerned about the semantics until it’s brought to our attention. We still wrestle with language in an attempt to be politically correct and sensitive to the feelings of others. For instance, in the mental health field, many people living with a mental illness dislike being referred to as a “consumer,” yet nobody has determined a universally accepted label to date. But I think that’s sort of the overall problem. Many people are sick and tired of being labeled, regardless of the societal segment.

Lucy Lewis: Thanks for your openness to feedback and thoughtful consideration of this issue. Using words that recognize a person’s humanity is always good journalism (and good for all of us to use as well).

Kim Stahl: I think more due care is needed though to avoid using terms that conflate jail with prison. Generally someone in a jail is not convicted, and should be assumed not guilty. Instead both in media and common use there’s often an assumption that people in jail are guilty and deserve any terrible thing that happens to them. But people land in jail for a lot of reasons.

Undreya Hudson: As a person who was formerly incarcerated, they like to call you inmate to dehumanize you. Read up on the term from formerly incarcerated individuals and you will get the same story. We are not the sum of our worst mistakes so to judge someone who hasn’t been found guilty of a crime is shameful! That young man was only in that cage because he couldn’t afford the ransom that was asked for his release!

Mark Schultz is the western Triangle editor for The Herald-Sun and The News and Observer. You can reach him at 919-829-8950 or mschultz@heraldsun.com

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun