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Washington State Prison Department to Stop Calling Prisoners ‘Offenders’

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 7:41
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From MSN: The Washington state Department of Corrections is phasing out the word “offender” in an attempt to shake a negative social stigma connected with the term.

For prisoners in classes, staff should now use “students.” And for those in the infirmary, they should say “patients.” “Individuals” is a better term, too, the department says.

The change aims to reverse negative stereotyping that follows inmates after their release, the department’s acting secretary, Richard Morgan, wrote in a memo announcing the new policy this past week. “Unfortunately, what starts out as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “This is something we can address.”

But soon after the announcement became public this week, some state leaders criticized the decision, saying the department has enough public-safety problems without correcting semantics.

The department started using “offender” in the early 2000s, after dropping “inmate,” as a general term to describe prisoners of both genders, whether they are in prison, on work release or supervised in the field, Morgan wrote in the memo. But now, the word has contributed to some unintended consequences, he wrote.

“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’” he wrote.

The prison department’s action followed similar efforts by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and U.S. Department of Justice. The debate over how to refer to prisoners has gone on for years, though it’s unclear if any research exists on how the word “offender” affects people, said department spokesman Jeremy Barclay. “He (Morgan) was mindful that other corrections systems had been doing something similar,” Barclay said. “He wasn’t trying to follow a trend or lead a trend.” Ridding the system of the term, however, is complicated. Prison documents and policies use the term, which Morgan said the department will change time. “We have many systems and proprietary tools that use the word ‘offender,’ and those will take much longer to address,” he said.

“But we need to start somewhere.” A group of Republican state senators is concerned about potential legal issues that could arise with the change. In a letter to Morgan, signed by five legislators, the group criticized the “Orwellian” attempt to affect the psychology of a population by changing the term. “There was no consultation with the Legislature, to our knowledge, in this decision,” the letter said.

“Several statutes and your own department’s policies and procedures clearly designate those within the prison system as ‘offenders.’” To abandon the term could create legal uncertainties about whether particular provisions continue to apply to people in prison, the letter said.

“The agency’s focus on this matter is curious in light of the crisis this past year created by its inaccurate sentencing calculations,” the letter said, , referring to the mistaken early release of prisoners because of a long-standing computer programming error. “Your agency’s focus on semantics creates doubt in our mind that it has learned from its mistakes.” Barclay had no comment on the letter.

(c)2016 The Seattle Times Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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