The Power of Language

THE WORDS WE USE

Long ago, in a far less enlightened era, the United States Supreme Court recognized parole’s dehumanizing potential.  In the case of Weems v. United States, Justice Joseph McKenna described the plight of a man “forever kept under the shadow of his crime” who could “not seek, even in other scenes and among other people, to retrieve his fall from rectitude.”

Our mission here at Project Operation Change is to empower those persons for whom, Justice McKenna wrote, “[n]o circumstance of degradation is omitted.”  We have come to believe that calling such persons “convicts,” “offenders,” “felons,” “parolees,” or “lifers” undermines that mission.  Terms like this not only reduce complicated human beings to the outcome of a flawed legal system; they ignore the suffering and trauma – frequently caused by structural inequalities – which so often lead to criminal activity.

Those among us on parole are not simply “parolees.”  We are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers.  We are writers, artists, and athletes who work jobs, pay taxes, volunteer, and worship – both alone and as members of spiritual communities.

Any organization seeking to change a conversation has a special responsibility to take care in the words it uses.  We take this responsibility seriously and welcome feedback any time the language we employ fails to serve our larger goals.