From Our Health Instead of Punishment Team: How Our Vision Guides Our Language

By Christine Mitchell

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Boston activists protest outside of the American Correctional Association conference in August 2019. Photo credit: Emily Goldhammer Photography (www.emilygoldhammer.com)

At the end of December, I was back home in Boston for the holidays. A few days after Christmas, I put on the right pair of pants (not too tight, not too loose, no black or blue jeans), the right shirt (not too tight, not too loose, no hood), removed all my jewelry, stopped at a convenience store to get a dollar in quarters for the visitor’s locker, and drove the hour and a half to visit a friend in prison.

During our visit, Wayland and I talked about all of the ways that prison dehumanizes people. He told me about an exchange he had with one of the guards:

“You’re an inmate.”

“I’m a person though, right?”

“No, you’re an inmate.”

“But I’m a person, can you admit that?”

The guard refused, over and over, to verbalize that Wayland is a person.

Psychology research shows us that dehumanization influences decisions for harsher and more severe punishment, as well as the perception that people are incapable of rehabilitation. In 2008, the Receiver in charge of medical care within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wrote a piece centering dehumanization as the source of medical neglect within prisons, draconian punishment policies, and use of force against incarcerated people.

Such a process — when coupled with the ways in which prisons, jails, and detention centers separate people from their families and communities — leads to a political indifference and apathy while people suffer and die behind bars.

There are steps we can take within public health to combat this dehumanization.

Last June, I joined the Health Instead of Punishment program at Human Impact Partners (HIP) as a research associate. Through research and advocacy, the Health Instead of Punishment program partners with community organizers to address the ways that policing, incarceration, immigration enforcement, and surveillance impact the health of people and communities.

While the longer arc of dismantling these systems and co-creating a healthier society is a long-term project, there are small and important changes we can make now in the ways we talk about these systems, the people targeted by them, and our goals as public health researchers and advocates.

Our language matters insofar as it shapes public opinion, action, and policy. Our vision matters insofar as it shapes our approach to the work of public health when it comes to policing, incarceration, immigration enforcement, and surveillance.

So, here are a few principles we’re committing to in our work at Human Impact Partners:

Using person-first language to center humanity and dignity, rather than freezing someone’s identity into one action or category.

People who are incarcerated have a lot of labels applied to them — “felon,” “convict,” “inmate,” “detainee,” “criminal,” and “offender,” to name a few. Even well-intentioned people use these terms when writing in the media, in the text of policy, and in public health research.

Following our conversations with those who are currently and formerly incarcerated, Human Impact Partners rejects these labels and uses person-first language to emphasize the humanity of people who are incarcerated within a system that inherently dehumanizes. Instead of the labels listed above, we use “person who is incarcerated” or “person who is imprisoned.” We not only use this language within our own work, but we have supported city and county policy in San Francisco to do the same. We also reject the labeling of any human as “illegal” and use person-first language when naming people who are undocumented.

Making it explicit: There is no “justice” to be found in the “criminal justice system.”

Given deeply entrenched inequities seen in racial profiling, over-policing, and mass incarceration of people of color and people experiencing poverty, some activists have been rightly pointing out that what is commonly referred to as the “criminal justice system” is a misnomer. There is no “justice” to be found within the system. Instead, many are now referring to the “criminal legal system” or the “criminal punishment system,” to call attention to the fact that the system is designed to punish, not to bring about justice.

HIP will be using the term “criminal legal system” in all future materials to describe the US system of laws and the actors who enforce them — including police, prosecutors, and judges — with the recognition that those actors often enforce the law inequitably and unjustly.

Moving towards liberation: We envision a society where all people are healthy and free.

The criminal legal system is not broken. It is functioning exactly as it was designed to function — to keep those who have been historically structurally marginalized behind bars. This means that we believe it cannot be fixed and instead must be dismantled, along with systems like racism, sexism, ableism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy upon which the criminal legal system is built.

But dismantling current systems must go hand-in-hand with envisioning and building a new, more just, and equitable system.

At HIP, we leverage the power of public health in partnerships with campaigns and movements for a just society. A public health approach to justice and community safety takes into consideration the root causes that lead to incarceration in the first place. By ensuring that people have what they need to thrive and survive — things like clean water, clean air, food, housing, education, employment, and health care — a public health approach encourages structural transformation that advances health equity and racial justice without relying on the criminal legal system.

Thus, we share our updated vision for the Health Instead of Punishment program, which will guide our future work related to the criminal legal system:

We’re fighting for a society where all people are healthy and free: Where we wield our collective resources to help, never to punish or hurt. Where all people get the care and assistance they need to repair any harm they have caused, heal historical or ongoing pain, and grow in community together. Where there is no need for prisons, jails, detention centers, or policing. Where all people can thrive.

Public health has work to do!

We know that language matters, especially insofar as it shifts mindsets, attitudes, culture, and policy. In the scope of our work at HIP, language matters insofar as it guides what actions we take to co-create a healthier and freer world.

But we are under no illusion that changing the language we use will end the dehumanizing process that takes place in the criminal legal system. True humanization requires building a world where all people are healthy, safe from harm, and free — not in cages. And there is so much that public health can do to co-create this world, following the lead of those most directly impacted.

Curious about how you can play a role? Here are some ways to plug in:

  • Interested in collaborating on a campaign? Contact our Health Instead of Punishment program director, Amber Akemi Piatt, at amber@humanimpact.org if you are interested in collaborating on campaigns and projects related to our work.
  • Join the Public Health Awakened network and follow Public Health Awakened on Twitter at @PHAwakened to learn about future calls to action for public health professionals to organize for health, equity, and justice.
  • Be on the lookout for our research on pretrial incarceration and money bail. One piece of building this world is ending money bail and pretrial incarceration. We’ve recently partnered with organizers working on this issue across the country to create a report documenting the health impacts of pretrial incarceration and a public health approach to ending this system. Make sure you’re signed up for our research email updates, to get the full report fresh off the digital press in early February!

Christine Mitchell is a Research Associate at Human Impact Partners. She is excited to partner with grassroots organizations doing liberative work on the ground and to continue researching the ways that incarceration and policing impact the health of people and communities.

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Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society

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