Putting People First

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Sometime in the 1970s, people began to reject the term “illegals” used to describe farmworkers who entered the United States illegally. No person is illegal, they said. Ten years later, people living with HIV decried being described as “AIDS victims.” We are not victims,” they said. “We are PLAs -- people living with AIDS.”

It was out of these experiences that the People First movement was born. It is not the “disabled” or “mentally ill” but people with disabilities and people with mental illness, a child with dyslexia, a man who is crippled, a woman with mental retardation. As women rejected being “victims” of domestic violence, they took it a step further, to be women who survived domestic violence.

And so it is with people getting out of prison. They are not felons or ex-offenders but men and women with felony convictions, men and women re-entering society. In prison the common term is not “inmates” but “offenders. “ I think the purpose is to put another block between the prisoner and the guard, an effort to prevent exactly the relationship that seems to have formed between the woman guard at Dannemora in upstate New York and the two escaped offenders. I get the rationale, but sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to be referred to always as an “offender” for 20 years -- or cripple or retarded or victim.

This comes to mind because I got a letter from a new prisoner re-entry group that refers to its clients all through the letter as “ex-offenders.” It is hard to change our language, but the People First folks are right. No matter how awkward the phrasing feels at first, it is not “ex-offenders” but “men and women released from prison.” In phrasing my letter to that group, I thought, “Dear reader, that you too might be interested enough to check your language.”

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