Sticks and Stones

 

Sticks and stones

can only break

bones, but words

can shatter the

soul.

Adam Savage

Words that label can do awful, long-lasting damage. Many words and terms need updating as we become more aware of their effects. Other words, phrases and concepts need much new thought and introspection as the world changes.

In education, words are like rusty old ships covered in ugly barnacles that need to be retired. Other words need care and attention to be used with sensitivity. Students of all ages pick up labels put upon them—and sometimes live into them. Special ed can be loaded up with negative attachments. Many of my prison students had been labeled special ed and put in separate programs. It took a lot of work for them to realize that it had been an inappropriate placement and that they could be hard-working, competent students. The achievement gap has all sorts of negative attachments, and it is used most often about students of color. The implication is that students aren’t really capable, that they are always far behind, that closing the gap is difficult to impossible. If we change the term to opportunity gap, we not only see it in whole new ways, but it puts the problem on the system, on adults—and not on students who are behind and not achieving.

We use all kinds of words to describe kids who are in trouble with the law: juvenile delinquents, punks, hoodlums, gangbangers, troublemakers, and goons among them. Bryan Stevenson calls them children, not even teenagers. In 2012, he argued passionately before the Supreme Court against putting children in prison for life—and won, using the 8th Amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. Compelling arguments were made about the development of adolescent brains and diminished culpability as they grow and change. Calling young offenders children changes everything.

In the 1990’s the use of super predator, used to describe young people as stopping at nothing to do harm, leaked into the public. Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy,

“Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of “super-predators” with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remoreseless” children lead nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.” (1)

The 1990’s became a decade when mass incarceration increased dramatically, as did the life imprisonment of many children. Stevenson goes on,

“The predictions of “super predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super predator” theory to disclaim it.” (2)

Incarcerated adults fare no better with a long list of derogatory labels: criminal, crook, robber, gangster, thug, lowlife, villain, mobster, convict, offender and felon, among them. When President Obama visited a federal prison, he referred to the people inside as incarcerated citizens. That changes  perceptions too. Using the word citizen alters the image of an incarcerated person. It refers to someone who’s been locked up and is serving time for a mistake, but it doesn’t automatically infer that the person is bad. “We are all far more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Stevenson. Many people are now referring to people who are released from prison as returning citizens,which sounds far more positive and hopeful than ex-felon, which immediately conjures up the image of a bad person—or at least the suspicion that the person is still interested in bad behavior.

6,000 people are being released from federal prisons in the next months, almost all of them convicted of non-violent offenses. But, our prison practices have changed dramatically in the last forty years, and we are far more reluctant to release anyone who has committed a violent crime. The suspicion is that once a violent person, always a violent person. I’ve known far too many men who’ve committed violent crimes and worked hard to overcome their tendencies for violence and become kind and loving people. Given the 2.2 million people we have in prison in the United States suggests that we aren’t very hopeful that people can change and transform their lives.

We could think of violent behavior as hurting people who don’t deserve it. If we added the practice of inflicting unnecessary harm on people, then all kinds of things are violent: capital punishment, solitary confinement, imprisoning children for life and putting them in solitary confinement. Civil asset forfeiture, the police seizing people’s possessions with a mere suspicion that they might be guilty of a crime, is unnecessary and inflicts all kinds of harm on innocent people. That’s violent too, as is excessive bail and fines for already impoverished people. It seems violent to tear parents away from children for drug offenses and lock them away for decades, when the person, the family and the communitry as a whole would be far better served by mental health services. The draconian sentences that disable people when they are released, denying them the right to food stamps, housing, licenses and assistance when released from prison could be called violent. To create so many barriers for returning citizens to put their lives back to together is to say to them, “We’re going to make things as hard as possible when you get out. You will never pay your debt to society.”

Denying citizens the right to vote is violent and unnecessary. People who’ve served time in prison are denied the right to vote in many states. If someone has never had a birth certificate or cannot drive and manage to get some other kind of identification, a situation many poor people find themselves in, they lose their right to vote in too many states. They may have voted faithfully all their lives. They may have fought hard to win the right to vote. They may have been badly hurt in the struggle for votes. To then deny them the precious right of voting is violent. It says, “You aren’t part of us. You don’t matter.” It damages people’s dignity. That’s violent too.

Calling undocumented immigrants illegals or aliens—or even worse illegal aliens, puts them firmly in a place of other, not like us, not deserving of care and concern. Ethnic slurs deserve a whole other blog. I’m writing a week after the terrorist attacks on Paris, and already people are conflating Syrian refugees with terrorists, and steps are being taken to bar refugees from our shores. That’s answering violence with more violence, inflicting more terror and suffering on people who’ve already lost their country, their home and any security they might have had.

I’ve noticed that the people running for office who criticize polite and careful language are the first to loudly object if they feel disparaged or labeled unfairly. Being careful about our language makes us sensitive, gives our common life together more civility and harmony. One of the first realities of working in a prison was this simple truth: if we treat people with kindness and respect, they respond with kindness and respect. Being careful, polite, kind and respectful makes us more gracious and graceful, qualities we still have but may have forgotten. Language needs to be used carefully, and the words we use often need careful thought.  We should not be in the business of “shattering souls.”


  1. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, New York), 2014, p. 159.
  2. Ibid., p. 160.

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