We The People

When I began writing these posts three years
ago, I struggled a bit with what term to use for
us who’ve been or are going through the
criminal justice system. I generally find
semantics to be a complete waste of time and I
very strongly believe words have no power by
themselves – we give them power based on our
sensitivities, insecurities, and our personal
definitions of each word. However, I refused to
use convict, felon, or ex-con/ex-felon, because
my mind viewed these as having too negative a
connotation (again, based on my sensitivity and
personal definitions). Foolishly, I chose a term
that was technically no different than those: ex
It’s time to fix that.
Each of the above terms brings to mind images
of untrustworthy, violent men, particularly
minorities. And these are not just images in the
minds of whites. Studies and experiments, such
as “Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit
Cognition” (Journal of Personal & Social

Psychology) and the Race IAT
(www.implicit.harvard.edu), demonstrate that
minorities subconsciously hold stereotypes
against even their own races. Then there are
the ridiculous claims, by cats who’ve been in
the system a while, that they aren’t offenders,
they’re convicts (a supposedly more prideful
label the DOC used to classify us as). But as
damaging as these labels are to us in general –
in regard to employment, housing, etc. –
they’re more damaging to our individual
attitudes and confidence (self-esteem).
Everything done to us and everything we do
influences the way we think. By using
restrictive labels like felon and ex-con to
describe ourselves, we are more likely to
associate ourselves with the negative
connotations of those words, and to accept the
inferior treatment they naturally attract. It’s a
subtle process. With each experience, each
observation and hardship, we learn to expect
less of ourselves in accordance with society’s
low expectations of us. Just look at the
struggles for advancement of virtually every
underprivileged, oppressed group in U.S.

history. They changed not only the language
that society used to describe them, but also
changed the way they described themselves.
Our progress demands we do the same.
Changing the language, of course, won’t erase
the stereotypes. However, it will weaken them,
which will allow us to better combat them with
a more positive, factual, and balanced image
based on respect and redemption. The media
and numerous organizations obviously play a
significant part in this issue, so it is important
to appeal to them about rejecting dishonest
labels to describe us.
If you want to advocate for changing the
language, contact the Center for NULeadership
on Urban Solutions
(www.centerfornuleadership.org, 718-484-
5879, 510 Gates Avenue, 1st Floor, Brooklyn,
New York 11216) to learn more about The
Language Campaign. If that approach doesn’t
interest you, though, just focus on changing
the way you define and view yourself, and
therefore how you define and view all currently
and formerly incarcerated individuals. For
example, I see my past and my mistakes as a
strength. Because of all the time I’ve been
down, I know I can handle whatever or
whomever life puts in front of me. I understand
soul-deep what matters in life and I’m grateful
for the uncommonly clear perspective and
humility incarceration has blessed me with. In
turn, this is my image of others who’ve been or
are going through the criminal justice system.
Stronger, not weaker or underprivileged.
We are not ex-cons or inmates. We are parents,
loved ones, citizens. We are people on
probation, people on parole, formerly or
currently incarcerated people. Ultimately, we
are people, with pasts, dreams and the
potential to reach them, just like anyone else.
We need to realize this and define ourselves
Keep boxing temptation.