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The right words can help tear down the prison system

September 17, 2017

by Emile DeWeaver

I am a prison abolitionist in my heart. But I’m a prison reformist in the world by virtue of the sad fact that I can’t yet imagine a working society without prisons.

Speaking at an event sponsored by San Quentin’s Creative Writing Class, Emile DeWeaver evokes laughter that breaks down barriers between those who will sleep in a cell that night and those who will go home to their own bedroom. DeWeaver is an accomplished journalist and author who serves as secretary of the San Quentin Society of Professional Journalists. – Photo: Peter Merts

I’ve spent every birthday since my 13th in an institution, so I’ve seen only prisons, heard only “prisons.” I want to abolish prisons; I just don’t have the imagination.

Part of my failure is a lack of language to describe such a world convincingly. Likewise, a barrier we face trying to dismantle the prison industrial complex (PIC) is we continue to use the language that helped build it.

The words “prisoner,” “inmate” and “offender” reinforce othering processes that institutionalize the PIC. If you want to be an ally to incarcerated people, do the hard work of eliminating those words from your daily speech.

A barrier we face trying to dismantle the prison industrial complex (PIC) is we continue to use the language that helped build it.

Poet and Black activist Tyson Amir writes in “Black Boy Poems” about how every word has a context, an embedded narrative, that partly defines what we can and cannot experience. He examines a period in world history when pseudo scientists embedded narratives of Black inferiority and white supremacy in dictionary definitions of “black” and “white.”

“The impact of this type of bias in the construction of [English] is not benign,” Amir writes. “What do you think this can do to people who are identified in their society as [W]hite or as [B]lack? If all the meanings associated with how you are described are positive or negative, it will have an effect.”

So what do most people associate with “prisoner,” “inmate” and “offender”? Willie Horton. Super predators. America’s Most Wanted. Sinister mug shots. Exploiters of human decency. The list could continue and what we’d find is not one positive quality.

Hundreds of thousands of people in prison have many positive qualities, but our current language excludes them from conversation. Words like “prisoner” create a false reality that corrupts public thought about incarceration, reform and public safety. Corrupt thoughts result in corrupt actions, which result in decadent political conditions.

For example, we live in a country armed with overwhelming scientific evidence that the retributive criminal justice system on which the PIC rests makes society less safe. Despite this evidence, scholars agree that the country lacks the political will to denounce retributive principles.

So what do most people associate with “prisoner,” “inmate” and “offender”? Willie Horton. Super predators. America’s Most Wanted. Sinister mug shots. Exploiters of human decency. The list could continue and what we’d find is not one positive quality.

The corruption of thought and discourse extends beyond supporters of the PIC to those of us trying to dismantle it. I’m an incarcerated activist who has never encountered a force more destructive to humanity than prisons, but who struggles to imagine a world without prisons.

Beyond my personal example, new volunteers in prisons like San Quentin find themselves shocked and transformed by the compassion, intelligence and resilience they encounter in incarcerated people. They have a hard time conveying their experiences in prison to their friends and families.

Often these volunteers must reduce their explanations to “you just have to come and see what I’m saying.” These volunteers struggle to communicate their experiences because they’re trying to explain something about “prisoners” that’s almost impossible.

New volunteers in prisons like San Quentin find themselves shocked and transformed by the compassion, intelligence and resilience they encounter in incarcerated people. They have a hard time conveying their experiences in prison to their friends and families.

It’s almost impossible because the narratives embedded in the word are incompatible with compassionate, deserving, amazing human beings. In essence, when people try to convey the human value of a “prisoner,” they are inadvertently expressing something other than human value.

Such inadvertence comes from a misunderstanding of what language is. George Orwell writes about this common misconception in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Orwell argues that language is not a “natural growth.” Instead, language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”

Given the inaccurate narratives embedded in “prisoner,” “inmate” and “offender,” what is the purpose of these words? What I see is they erase people to make it palatable for a nation that holds itself up as the flagship of liberty to systematically deny liberty to millions of people.

If you are an ally to incarcerated people, please renounce that system and the language that supports it. Join us in creating a different language that reflects a different purpose.

As you advocate for incarcerated people, advocate also for a language that doesn’t need “prisoners,” “inmates” and “offenders.” I hold hope that this may lead to a world that doesn’t need prisons.

If you are an ally to incarcerated people, please renounce that system and the language that supports it. Join us in creating a different language that reflects a different purpose.

Emile DeWeaver is a Black community organizer who’s been incarcerated for 20 years. He co-founded prisonrenaissance.org, a nonprofit organization that joins arts, education and advocacy to support progressive reform. Send our brother some love and light: Emile DeWeaver, P-78987, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA 94964.

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