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An Insider’s View: Why can labels be so offensive?

On Saturday we held the first of our two befriender training sessions. This week our day-long workshop was lead by Charlie Ryder – a filmmaker, performer, puppeteer and outreach worker who has also served a prison sentence. An important point that we explored together was the terminology used to refer to people with a conviction. Here he goes into more detail about how damaging language alone can be.

When I was released from prison in 1996, I had no idea that the label ‘ex-offender’ would be used against me for the rest of my life. In fact, it came to shape the hearts and minds of the many people who discriminated against me, as CRB checks saw my many application forms drop into HR dustbins.

I now run a mentoring scheme for people in prison. I believe it’s important to treat people the way you want to be treated. In my case that means unconditional love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and a non-judgemental attitude. I feel ‘ex-offender’ is a permanent label based purely on the worst thing you have ever done and I find it deeply offensive.

For some time now, I’ve been asking others whether they find the term ‘ex-offender’ as offensive as I do.

Performance poet Mr Gee runs poetry workshops in prison. He feels the term “ex-offender” sonically invites the listener to focus on the word “offender” – the past as opposed to the future. He says, “This creates a tragic cycle where the individual isn’t allowed to move on. The term “ex-offender” doesn’t aid the rehabilitation process. None of us would like to be judged by the lowest point in our lives.”

Members of an online forum provided by Unlock, a national charity for people with convictions have recently debated this issue. Executive director Chris Bath told me, “Some people feel ‘ex-offender’ is a powerful statement of where they’ve been and proudly take ownership of the term. But most just want to be referred to in the same way as everyone else; Charlie the playwright, Karen the criminologist, Steve the fantastic dad”.

Like me, Chris feels a change of language is critical if we are to tackle the life sentence of stigma attached to even a minor criminal record. He told me, “One Work Programme provider I spoke to recently referred to ‘PG9s’, a reference to the way claimants are categorised. People used to talk about ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’. It’s a dehumanising technique. If it is absolutely critical that we refer to the characteristic, we need to think in terms of people with convictions.”

Author, blogger and professional speaker Shaun Attwood summed it up like this, “Ex-offender – the word offender has too much negative connotation. Person with conviction is less dehumanising”.

Emilia di Girolamo is a TV scriptwriter and producer who spent 8 years running drama programmes in prison. She told me, “I love that term ‘person with conviction’. I actually love the double meaning. To succeed after prison you need real conviction because the odds are stacked against you. I shall start using it myself. It only takes a few people and eventually works its way into the mainstream.”

Filmmaker and PhD student Deirdre O’Neill questions the use of the label ‘offender’ even more fundamentally. She suggests that, “Before we use the word “offender’ to describe someone who is in prison we should unpack the meaning of this word when it’s applied in this context. What and who are prisoners offending?” She feels that prisoners, mostly from working class backgrounds and let down by the system, are the “casualties of capitalism, the homeless, the mentally ill, the politically angry, warehoused away and punished. Then they are called offenders.”

In January I attended ‘A Workable Revolution’, a conference organised by the criminal justice group No-offence!. Richard Branson recorded a video for the event in which he used the phrase, “people with convictions”. So perhaps Emilia di Girolamo is right – perhaps we have started a rehabilitation revolution of our own.

By Charlie Ryder

More about Charlie Ryder’s work, including his play Prison? can be found at his website here

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