Eddie Ellis and Criminal Justice Language

When I think of the life and legacy of Eddie Ellis, I think of his Criminal Justice Language Letter, a short, simple, but seminal letter that began to change the discourse in criminal justice, first in New York State, and then across the nation.  Eddie knew the importance and power of words, and penned the following letter, which is required reading for anyone at any level dealing with the criminal justice system:

“When there is emotional pain, psychiatrists like me believe that we can help.  But before we act we need to find some handle for the problem, some name to guide action.  Once in awhile, we realize that these names are inadequate for the problems we are seeing.  Then we search for new names, or new ways to group old names.”

— Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D., “Root Shock,” 2005

 An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language

 Dear Friends:

The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions is a human justice policy, advocacy and training center founded, directed and staffed by academics and activists who were formerly incarcerated.  It is the first and only one of its kind in the United States.

One of our first initiatives is to respond to the negative public perception about our population as expressed in the language and concepts used to describe us.  When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons.  All terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people.  These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies.  However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.

In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE.  People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.

We habitually underestimate the power of language. The bible says, Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” In fact, all of the faith traditions recognize the power of words and, in particular, names that we are given or give ourselves. Ancient traditions considered the “naming ceremony” one of the most important rites of passage. Your name indicated not only who you were and where you belonged, but also who you could be.  The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself “for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  It follows then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.   I can be and am much more than an “ex-con,” or an “ex-offender,” or an “ex-felon.”

The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions believes that if we can get progressive publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as “people,” we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are.  We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society. 

We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use.  We think that by insisting on being called “people” we reaffirm our right to be recognized as human beings, not animals, inmates, prisoners or offenders. 

We also firmly believe that 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.

Accordingly, please talk with your friends and colleagues about this initiative.  If you agree with our approach encourage others to join us.  Use positive language in your writing, speeches, publications, web sites and literature. 

When you hear people using the negative language, gently and respectfully correct them and explain why such language is hurting us.  Kindly circulate this letter on your various list serves. 

 If you disagree with this initiative, please write and tell us why at the above address or e-mail me at eellis@centerfornuleadership.org. Perhaps, we have overlooked something.

Please join us in making this campaign successful.  With your help we can change public opinion, one person at a time.  Thank you so much.

In Solidarity and Love,

 Eddie Ellis


4 Easy Steps To Follow

  • Be conscious of the language you use. Remember that each time you speak, you convey powerful word picture images.
  • Stop using the terms offender, felon, prisoner, inmate and convict.
  • Substitute the words PEOPLE and RETURNING CITIZENS for these other negative terms.
  • Encourage your friends, family and colleagues to use positive language in their speech, writing, publications and electronic communications. 




About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on Amazon.com.
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