More Than Just a Felon

What should we call people with a criminal history — and why does it matter?

What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Now imagine being known by that one mistake — regardless of what you’ve done to take responsibility or make amends. You have to write it on the top of every application for employment or housing you ever fill out — for the rest of your life.

Labels are powerful, and our society has plenty for people who have been through the criminal justice system and have the record to show for it: Felon. Offender. Convict. Criminal.

Even inmate casts a dark shadow in its rightful context. An inmate is just a number — identified by numbers on a uniform. Personhood is revoked. When we call people offenders and convicts, we identify them by what they have done, not by their basic human dignity.

But why does it really matter what people with a criminal history are called? It turns out that the labels aren’t primarily a matter of political correctness, but of public safety.

A FACE TO THE NAME

The land of the free incarcerates more people than any country in the world — almost 2.2 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Ninety-five percent of those in state prisons will be released, facing widespread social stigma and legal restrictions that hinder them from giving back to society (check out some of the most outrageous ones here). And every year, prisons release 600,000 people back into their communities.

That’s a lot of people to relegate to the fringes of society, even after their debt is paid. And the labels we give them have the power to change how they think about themselves and their potential.

“When someone can never shake the label ‘offender,’ it’s as if the time or work they put into paying their debt means nothing,” says Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship®.

Prison Fellowship holds to the belief that all people have God-given value, dignity, and the potential to change. People are not the sum of their worst choices. As an organization and as a community, we want our language to reflect that — to lend to a culture that helps people with a criminal record to make important contributions to society and live up to their God-given potential. And everybody’s story is different. …

“Once you have that scarlet letter on your forehead
that says ‘Felon,’ everything becomes difficult.
But God brought me through all the things I’ve been through
for such a time as this … to bring hope and help to others.
My kids have their mom back, my mom has her daughter back.”
Gina Evans

Meet Gina, Chris, and Randy — and get the full story at PrisonFellowship.org.

Article by Emily Andrews.