Friday, 4 July 2014

What's in a Name?

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.

No-one present objected to "prisoners". We were all in prison (regardless of appeal status) and so this was accepted as a statement of fact. Even those of us who were maintaining innocence were fine with "convict' (as we had all been convicted at that date). There were no unconvicted remands present. Even though the staff looked aghast at the use of the term "con", none of us really felt this to be offensive or demeaning. We all used the word amongst ourselves, anyway. Uniformed staff certainly liked to use it between themselves and so I suppose we regarded it as the opposite of being a "screw". It fitted neatly: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, screws and cons.

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.

1 comment:

  1. It is good to read this again.

    I hate the term Inmate - it actually really grates with me as much as when as a child I was called "Fatty". Inmate - to me is truly awful. I also hate being called, in that Londoners way - 'mate' - unless the caller really is a mate. I expect I am completely illogical, but most folks are over some things, hence the use of language is critical.

    I could go - on and on - I tried very hard to stop the use of the word offender when it was first introduced into probation in the way it is now used but completely failed.

    I once publicly challenged the then head of the first National Probation Service -- Eithne Wallis (now Lady Birt) about this and felt pleased when she supported my use of such words as probationer (no longer relevant as the probation order has now been abolished in name as well as practicably) - but supervisee is an apposite replacement. Some of those subject to official engagement with probation workers were never probationers anyway - pre-sentence - defendants seems OK, post sentence - prisoners, parolees or licencees seems OK to me and I am pleased to report also Lady Birt, though I doubt her opinion carries any weight nowadays.

    I also hate Guards and Warders for prison staff - though cannot really say why - Officer is fine. I also had the impression - that many so called 'old school' prison officers - were relaxed about being called Screws by Cons and vice versa.

    When I first worked in prisons and more especially borstals, in north west England, the accepted form of address for staff as an alternative to the servile "Sir" was "Boss" and I certainly got used to being called that - it somehow seemed to make the instant relationship more normal.

    So one might hear "Boss - can you open my pad?" - such lingo seemed part of a 'normal' non stressful (as possible) relationship - where one group of humans constantly lock other humans up in spaces - smaller than many animal cages.

    When I moved "down south" and was going in and out of prisons I realised that the the alternative to "Sir" was actually "Governor" or just "Gov" - I soon got used to that and it was completely normal when I worked for five years in a London Local - to the extent when a northerner might sometimes forget where he was (a Victorian closed Cat B prison inside is pretty similar whether it is Exeter, *Bedford, Walton or Wandsworth - though Lancaster did take me back another ten centuries!) and say the word "Boss" which even attracted criticism from - some - officers - in the "down south" gaols. As a born Londoner (well I was actually born in a part of Essex that before 1965 had a London postal area - E4) and going about such places as Smithfield Meat Market from my early teens - the term "Gov" from one to another was very familiar and used in all sorts of situations as an alternative to "Sir" especially when one did not know the name of the one being addressed.

    As for the term - so called educated folk in probation use seemingly without thought - Offender Manager - well - that is simply an oxymoron and completely against the spirit of probation as it was fixed by the 1907 Probation of Offenders Act. The whole point of probation is to inculcate an attitude to self management in the manner of a responsible and mature human taking a full part in the wider society - anyone who is to have their every moment managed or at least to be told they are to be managed - is hardly likely to gain a sense that the idea is that they should actually, self manage. I shall not rehearse my feelings about the word Offender as a prefix to Manager - here and now - yet again!

    *Bedford prison - actually pre Victorian - opened in 1801