Unlocking the Second Prison: Changing our Words to Help Returning Citizens

We use language to define our world, but what is it exactly that our words do? The effect of our words on our lives may seem obvious, but further reflections reveal that we do not know the strength of our everyday talk. Changing our language is a small step we can take that can help us to think and act in new, redemptive ways.

For men and women leaving prison and integrating back into society, the language used to describe them can oftentimes perpetuate harmful stigmas and make their transition even more difficult.

Changing our language is a small step we can take that can help us to think and act in new, redemptive ways.

One organization, Prison Fellowship, recognizes the weight our words have on former prisoners whom they call, “returning citizens” and is working to reinterpret the narratives and rhetoric we use to talk about prisons and their populations. Prison Fellowship is at the forefront of both interpersonal and policy work to help returning citizens integrate back into society; part of what makes this work succeed is the emphasis they put on reinterpreting the narratives and rhetoric we use to talk about prisons and their populations.

Prison Fellowship equips, “wardens, prison staff, and volunteers, including men and women serving time, to create safer, more rehabilitative prisons that prepare prisoners to return to their communities as good neighbors.” This restorative work is done in a holistic manner. The ministry engages the men and women in prison, their families, the prison staff, and the relevant legislative bodies in order to champion a fully restorative pathway back into shared community life. Their work is aimed at reaching approximately 600,000 returning citizens each year who are struggling to integrate back into society.

While most of us don’t spend time in prisons, the men and women who have been to prison come from and return to the neighborhoods we live in. One of the more common stories they share is the culture shock that comes with leaving prison and returning to public society. They have been under a strict schedule, and find re-entry to be frightening and open-ended. And, it is in this exact situation that many of them struggle to find work and a place back in society.

Reflect for a moment on your mental model of the term ‘ex-convict’. Are your thoughts positive, negative, both? A look at legislation across the United States presents us with our answer as a culture. When trying to reintegrate into society, “ex-convict” acts as a scarlet letter. In other words, it is an unconcealable symbol that shows off the returning citizen’s past deeds for all interested parties to see. A variety of laws across many states bans ex-convicts from various types of work. Thus, their past haunts them regardless of the growth and change they have experienced.

Even in states without legal bans, there are the prejudice and distrust from private employers who worry about how the public or customers might respond to individuals with a prison record. This stigma that comes with a prison record can be attached to someone in the juvenile justice system and may stay with them for their entire life. The terms we use must change.

The terms we use must change.

On one hand, the term “ex-convict” emphasizes what they’ve done, and hangs it around their neck as a millstone. It is a loaded term that categorizes a human beings’ identity in past illegal activity for which they have already been punished. On the other hand, the language of, “returning citizen” provides hope and honors both their humanity and their capacity to contribute to a flourishing society. It gives space for hope by acknowledging their capacity to act as a citizen despite the barriers they may face. Yet, on an even deeper level it honors their humanity by reminding them that they are not defined by past actions, rather we expect them to contribute as one citizen among many.

While committing ourselves to support and volunteer with organizations like Prison Fellowship, one of the most powerful things we can do is fight the stigma with our words. During the month of April, Prison Fellowship spearheaded a bipartisan effort to officially establish April as Second Chance Month through their initiative called the Second Prison Project. Throughout the month they shared stories about the “second prison” that returning citizens discover when they enter back into society. Thousands of legal restrictions and distrust often apply so much stress that they resort to illicit activity and end up back in prison.

This is the story of Casey Irwin. After dealing with the consequences of drug possession and DUIs, she ended up in prison for the fourth time. She realized her need for help. She wrote, “I needed people to tell me how to live.” While in prison, she needed help learning skills that would help her live a different life. When she left prison, she needed public advocates who took a chance by employing her, approving her for housing, etc. Yet, she soon realized that learning skills wasn’t enough. In her own words, “If you look at me on paper, I look like a horrible person. I really do. I just want somebody to give me a break.” Even after leaving prison, she had difficulty finding a place to live because so few people would rent to someone with a prison record.

The responsibility of unlocking this second prison is partially on us as we perpetuate or challenge the rhetoric surrounding returning citizens. It is our role as the neighbors of returning citizens not to judge and discipline them a second time, but to love our neighbors, as human beings made in the image of God, regardless of their past. As Christians, we support an approach to public justice that holds the retributive and restorative aspects in tension. We hold people accountable, yet also offer restoration. We do this in honor of the God who holds us accountable, yet still offers grace and reconciliation.

-Jarrod Phipps is a human, husband, and philosopher finishing up a Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.