Residential Living: Wisconsin Sheriff Bars The Use of “Inmate” for Incarcerated Individuals

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett has ordered staff to stop calling incarcerated persons “inmates” or “prisoners.” They are now to be called “residents” or “those who are in our care.” Such a change would produce some unintelligible results if applied generally. Nelson Mandela’s famous quote would become “Only free men can negotiate. A [resident] cannot enter into contracts.” Yet, what is most interesting is that the word “inmate” was derived from a term for residents. 

Barrett made the change after meeting with the nonprofit Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. He declared

“I view this change in name as a way to humanize those who are within our care…This proactive approach to our criminal justice reform is going to allow us to move toward a 21st-century policing mindset in which we treat everyone within our community with dignity, respect and humanity… As your sheriff, I believe our philosophies, policies and practices should be proactive and not reactionary like many other areas of our criminal justice system.”

Barrett further added that “The Dane County Sheriff’s Office is a national leader in appropriate progressive reform, and many follow our lead.” Dane County Supervisor and Democratic state Rep. Sheila Stubbs added that the change would give incarcerated individuals “a sense of belonging.”

I have worked in prisons and jail for three decades, including running a national prisoner project. I am not convinced that calling inmates “residents” will lend a “sense of belonging.” Moreover, the asserted goal of reducing the “stigma” of prison is somewhat counterintuitive since it is a form of isolation from and punishment by society.

The distinction can be lost on the “residents” in a facility after lockdown. I reminds me of the scene in The Simpsons where the officers corrected Bart on using the right word of “baton” rather than “club:

Bart: Wow! Can I see your club?
Lou: It’s called a baton, son.
Bart: Oh. What’s it for?
Lou: We club people with it.

However, I do not fault the motivation behind the effort. Yet, this could require considerable campaign to change attitudes.  After all, Residence Inn has spent millions to prove that “It’s Not A Room, It’s A Residence.”

What I find striking is the singling out of the term “inmate” given its origins and broader meaning.

In the 1500s, the term originally meant someone who was living in a house rented by another.  It derives simply from inn  and mate (or companion).  It referred to people living together and later meant anyone living with many other people in a single dwelling. This is reflected in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1756): “Inmates are those that be admitted to dwell for their money jointly with another man.” Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) defined the term as “a lodger, one who lives in the same house.” Merriam-Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1864) defined it as “a person who lodges or dwells in the same apartment or house with another; a fellow-lodger.”

Even in the 1960s, it was defined as essentially a shared residency though it had picked up the added prison meaning. Merriam-Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary (1963) defined it as “one of a family or other group occupying a single residence; esp: a person confined in an asylum, prison, or poorhouse.”

So, if you wanted a term to mean a type of residency, you would use “inmate.”

Besides, do you really want to rewrite Mel Brooks’ hilarious scene in The Producers to feature the production “Residents in Love”?


36 thoughts on “Residential Living: Wisconsin Sheriff Bars The Use of “Inmate” for Incarcerated Individuals”

  1. No judgment, no labels, no repercussions, until they come for the mayor, the sherriff, or a life that matters.

  2. “So, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

    – Richard Rowland

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    – Declaration of Independence, 1776

  3. When planning your next heist, consider which penitentiaries have the best amenities. San Quentin has much to offer the discerning criminal. We have scrupulously clean rooms, all of which have a view of the concrete atrium. Each room opens on to a walkway, convenient for an evening constitutional stroll after dinner. Speaking of which, our residents are served their meals with a smile and an extra dollop of rations. San Quentin boasts a state of the art workout room, and we have specialists available for students who wish to continue their education. We offer counseling, meditation, and even art classes. We have had several artists display their works at renowned galleries. Plus, your stay won’t be longer than you would like, as CA regularly engages in early release programs, even for violent offenders.

    But we do hope that when you leave, you come back soon!

  4. The best way to subvert a culture is to negate their culture, their history and their language. See what is going on here?

    1. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. [Lemkin]

      Subversion from within is insidious.

  5. Could we bar the term “sheriff” and instead use “host”?

    The sheriff would look less intimidating to women and minorities if he dressed as a hotel manager.

    1. Agreed. Do people even know what other people, in particular in maximum security facilities, go away for? It is high time we stop making every move to placate the ‘feelings; of millennials and younger, who pretty much make up the dem radical base. Words are words. they are nothing more, and nothing less. These constituents have never been raped, and they have never been killed. it is an absolute imperative that we have free elections in 2022, and by that I mean free of the dem vision of what constitutes a fair election.

      1. My wife is a nurse at SCI Waymart sate prison. She used to be much more tolerant of such people, even more liberal over all, before she started working there 8 years ago. She now despises walking in the place. These INMATES are the scum of the earth. She has access to every inmates file…if only people knew.

  6. Today, this nonsense about those jailed/imprisoned because of a conviction of crime(s) — or those awaiting trial because of accusations of crime. Yesterday (and continuing): don’t call those who illegally enter the USA from a foreign country “illegal aliens” — but ignore their crimes by calling them migrants!!

Comments are closed.