When I was in a C-cat prison I recall participating in a debate about the proper terms that should be used when referring to prisoners. This discussion took place in the Education Department and involved civilian staff and peer mentors.
The official term favoured by the Prison Service and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is "offender" (at least for convicted prisoners). However, there was almost unanimous objection to the use of this term. As one peer mentor observed, his offending was in the past, while the use of this term appeared to imply that he was continuing to offend at the present moment. Others objected on the grounds that it seemed to define everyone by their offences, rather than by the fact that they were serving a custodial sentence as a consequence of their past actions.
A couple of us, who still had ongoing appeals against conviction, rejected the term "offender" on the fundamental grounds that we were continuing to maintain our innocence and the Court of Appeal had yet to hear our appeals. So we went on to discuss what terms could be used without causing offence.
There was a more lively debate over the term "inmate". Some - including a couple of the civilian staff - felt that this had overtones of Victorian mental asylums. Others, myself included, expressed the view that it was similar to "prisoner" in that it was merely a statement of fact. We all lived in the establishment, so we were inmates. It just seemed to have become unfashionable to use the word because of its negative connotations.
Another gambit was "resident", although no-one really took that suggestion seriously. True, it was factual; we were all residents of HMP. However, we all agreed it was unlikely to enter into everyday usage.
For me, this discussion was interesting because it was revealing something about the ways in which prisoners see themselves. While the vast majority present accepted that they had previously committed criminal offences, they rejected being defined by a term that appeared to imply a continuing state of action... that as prisoners they were somehow regarded as being in a continual state of offending. In that context, it was suggested that the term "ex-offender" might be more accurate as it acknowledged responsibility for past actions, but also made it clear that there was an intention to move forward and avoid committing further offences in the future.
This, I think, is where language can be very important as a tool for rehabilitation. If the official term - "offender" - has static, entirely negative overtones, then this can have a tendency to undermine positive re-evaluations about the direction of one's life, as well as the determination to embrace change and to rehabilitate oneself. Define a person solely by their past offences and there is a risk that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We always under-estimate the power of language at our peril.