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”?