The late Eddie Ellis was a leading voice in the movement for human rights, as both the founder for the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions and an internationally recognized scholar on prison policy. Imprisoned for a quarter-century (on a charge for which he maintained his innocence), Ellis earned two Associates Degrees, a Bachelor of Science degree, and a Masters Degree while incarcerated. “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language”--Ellis’s letter on the dangerous effects of criminalizing and dehumanizing language--remains an influential text for those committed to ending mass incarceration and transforming the justice system.
“We habitually underestimate the power of language,” he writes in the letter. Ellis understood better than most how language can be both a means of liberation and a tool of oppression.
Throughout history, dehumanizing language has been used to justify terrible acts of violence. During World War II, Nazi Germany used the term mischling, which roughly translates to “mongrel,” to legally classify people of part-Jewish ancestry. Following the war, the term was used for babies born to non-white soldiers and German women. During the Rwandan genocide, Tutsi people were regularly referred to as inyenzi, or cockroaches.
Words like felon, convict, criminal, prisoner, offender, and perpetrator create a paradigm where the person is removed from the equation and individuals are defined by a single experience.
The mass incarceration system has relied on the same kind of dehumanizing language to sustain and legitimize its abuses. Words like felon, convict, criminal, prisoner, offender, and perpetrator create a paradigm where the person is removed from the equation and individuals are defined by a single experience. These labels ignore the social, economic, and political drivers of mass incarceration and deprive people of their complex identities. They make reentry into society increasingly difficult due to stigmas and prejudices associated with these labels.
Kevin Richardson, speaking years later on his wrongful conviction in the Central Park Five case, said “People called us animals, wolf pack. It still hurts me emotionally.” Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the death penalty for the five Black teenagers. Even after they were vindicated by DNA evidence, Trump has continued to use dehumanizing language on social media to attack the exonerated men.
Numerous studies have been published showing how dehumanizing language alters the way we view and treat people. A 2017 study found a rise in hostile sexist attitudes after exposing people to language that compared women to animals. A 2015 study found that dehumanizing language toward people of Arab identity “strongly predicts support for aggressive actions like torture and retalitory violence.”
“If we cannot persuade you to refer to us, and think of us, as people, then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised,” wrote Ellis.
Decarceration advocates must hold policymakers, media outlets, and public figures accountable for promoting a language that allows for shifts in the broader consciousness. They must be just as committed to laying the groundwork for the future as they are in changing the policies of today. Language has the power to transform the larger narrative, so that the reforms we fight for create space for new possibilities--and are not simply rolled back as soon as a new administration comes in, as we have seen time and time again.
Projects to dismantle the system of mass incarceration must exist alongside a concerted effort to restore the humanity of incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, and other justice-involved people. That begins with the everyday language we use.