We need a new language to talk about the people we imprison. As linguists tell us, language controls thought and thought controls action. The words we use (and don’t use) create tracks in the mental mud that future travelers follow more or less automatically. The path is easy and clear and everything else seems an impenetrable bramble. As a result, we talk about certain topics in the same way, over and over again, until any other language sounds foreign and incomprehensible. That’s why the language of prison or police abolition is so hard for so many people. They have used the same language to describe safety for so long that they cannot imagine it in any other terms. When people speak this new language, it strikes many others as gibberish. It takes a real effort to suspend judgment and accept the possibility of a new way of thinking. That’s how language shapes our future.
And when I say a new language, I have in mind far more than a new noun to replace inmate, prisoner or convict. That’s the limit of most people’s thinking on this question, and a great deal of ink has been spilled coming up with alternative labels, some of which are so unwieldy (person or individual impacted by the justice system) that they fail the first test of language: do they make communication easier? But as anyone who has been labeled knows, a person is much more than a noun, and the problem is not simply the label we stamp on a person’s head. I am an introvert, and everyone who shares that trait understands that it contains within its nine letters an entire world of distance and awkwardness but also calm and serenity, albeit from a safe remove.
To call someone an introvert (or a person intensely uncomfortable in crowds) is to summon a nearly inexhaustible supply of words and mental images, which themselves include a bundle of well-entrenched stereotypes and prejudices. And don’t even get me started on the real and imagined meaning crammed into some of my other labels, like Jew, lawyer, academic, New Yorker, or White. Even writing one label before another is fraught with significance, at least for some people. Is he saying he’s more Jew than White? The very thought is sure to set some tongues wagging. When I talk about a new language for the people we imprison, I mean it in this much broader sense to capture the whole universe of words, images and ideas that come to mind when someone says, “I’m in prison for the rest of my life.”
As it stands now, this declaration hurls the listener backwards in time to a crime. At least, it does if the listener is on the outside. One of the many things people on the outside don’t get about prison life is that people do not generally walk around the yard talking about the offense that landed them in prison. Friends of mine inside tell me they might know someone for years and still not know their crime, at least not in any detail. The crime is the past. It’s part of who they were, not who they are or who they want to be. The crime is how the outside world judges them, not how they judge themselves or how they want to be judged.
But for most people on the outside, when they hear about people in prison, only one question matters: “What did they do?” And for a majority of the people inside, the answer is that they caused great pain. They killed a child. They beat a man senseless and fractured his skull; now he can’t work. They shot a cop. They raped a woman. They caused a widening circle of misery that radiates outward from a suddenly hollow center that can never be filled again: A mother buried her child, a child lost her father, a partner raises that child alone, a neighborhood lost a friend, a community lost a member. One of us is gone and the rest of us have been changed forever.
And because of the very limited language we have for people in prison, as soon as a person inside gives this answer, everything stops. There is no past. There is no future. There is no complexity. And most of all, there is no escape from the amber that traps them in the images and meaning created by that answer. At that point, the only thing expected of the people inside is that they have the decency to be forgotten.
This narrowing is reinforced by other deficiencies in the language. The obsession in English to affix labels has given us a word for someone who commits a crime. We call them a criminal, as though the word filled the very limits of their identity. This linguistic straitjacket distorts the thinking even of those who imagine they are part of the solution rather than the problem. Last week, I was chatting with a Cornell undergraduate who opposes mass incarceration. Without irony, he told me about his work last summer on behalf of “rapists” and “kidnappers.” It never occurred to him to say he had worked for people with a long past behind them and a long future before them, who had been convicted of a terrible crime.
But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, “What did you do?”, we ask, “What happened?”
To ask what happened is to wonder, with curiosity and compassion, what brought a human being to this place. The question widens the lens, like a camera that slowly retreats from a scene to reveal the details that make sense of the senseless. The question brings an entire life into focus and opens our eyes to the furthest reaches of causation. We wonder about the child and the home into which he was born. The lessons he absorbed, the blows he received, and the pain he endured. We wonder about his fears and dreams. We wonder about his parents. What did they pass along, from the code in their genes and the drugs in their blood to the madness in their family tree and the bigotry in their heart? We wonder about his developing brain. Was it steeped from the earliest age in violence, in the street and in the home? I once met a man who told me by the time he was 15 he had been to a funeral for every year of his life. By 18, he was in prison. We ask about race and poverty and hunger. About the medication he couldn’t afford and the drugs he could.
An unforgiving society asks, “What have you done?” It narrows our focus and closes our mind, reducing a human being to an act. A forgiving society asks, “What brought you to this place?” It broadens our inquiry and opens our heart, placing an act into the trajectory of a long life filled, like any other, with pain and promise.
Before we can hope to create the change of heart that lies at the core of a forgiving society, we need to start asking the right question. It’s simple, really, but it changes everything: What happened?