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Words Matter–Thoughts On Language and Abolition

Words alone can't save us. But our language does shape what we can imagine, and by using new words and old words differently, we can imagine new things. A major reason the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) grows is that we are told there isn't another option. We need to use language creatively to make healthy systems possible as we develop strong, specific challenges to the PIC.

The way people talk about policing, prisons, safety, and "crime" shapes what we think these things are, and forms the ways we imagine change can or should happen. Words are not neutral, and it's important that we break down and reshape their meanings in our own materials and conversations. We can use language to shift debates, make people see things differently, and challenge our own assumptions and fears. Below are discussions and specific examples of how our word choice can not only help us make stronger abolitionist arguments, but figure out what abolition can look like.

These words get used all the time when people talk about prisons, police, courts, and "public safety." They are used as often by people who support the PIC as people fighting against it. They are filled with assumptions about the people and ideas they describe. Often, these same assumptions make the PIC seem logical and necessary. They redefine people and actions in terms of the category or idea represented by the word. In this way a person becomes a criminal, and the act of the State putting someone in a cage becomes justice. This maintains people's fear for their safety, their understanding of what they need to be safe, and their reliance on and acceptance of police and prisons.

Most of these words work in pairs: when we use one, we are really using both. Innocent and guilty are a pair like this-the idea that innocent is opposed to guilty (you are one or the other) is considered a "natural" assumption and it's what immediately comes to mind for most people. So saying that "innocent people" shouldn't be in prison (which most of us can agree is true), also says that "guilty people" should be. It implies that most people who are locked up deserve to be there because they "did something." If we want to say that people are being picked up, harassed, or held without charges; there's a way to say it without suggesting that people in other circumstances are worse, or are "bad" people, or deserve to be in cages.

It's important to pay attention to the words we use to describe people in cages. Most commonly, they are called "inmates," "criminals," and "prisoners." What are the differences?

1. Inmate. Originally, this term meant someone who shared a house with others. Currently, it mostly refers to people in prisons and mental institutions.

2. Criminal. This term doesn't just mean someone convicted of a crime, or even someone who harms others. It implies that causing harm is essentially a part of this person, maybe even the most meaningful part of their personality.

3. Prisoner. This is someone kept in a cage against their will by a powerful institution (like the State), whether or not that institution is just.

  • The drug laws drive prison expansion, fill prisons with non-violent, minor offenders, and drain resources from other services, such as drug treatment and education.
  • Non-violent drug offenders are spending more time in prison than murderers and rapists.
  • These words are raced and gendered. For example, "criminal," and "Black," are often code words for each other. There is tremendous pressure from white supremacy in media, or in policing, (or both, as in Cops and the local news) to make an automatic connection between these terms, both by assuming a "criminal" is going to be a Black person, and in assuming that a Black person is going to be a criminal. There are particular ways terms like these get gendered too. "Welfare queen," is one term that might be thought of as a femininely gendered word for criminal. It works to make Black women and criminals interchangeable. This combination of gendering and racing applies to men as well. "Gang member" and "rapist" are two examples of words that work to make Black men and criminals equivalent.

    "Prisoner" stands apart from "inmate" and "criminal" because it describes how people are put in cages. It helps us remember that people aren't in cages for their own good or simply as a place to stay (which "inmate" implies), or that they are inseparable from the harm they might/might not have caused (which is implied by "criminal"). It helps us to see the State as actively choosing to put people in cages, while "inmate" and (especially) "criminal" imply that imprisonment is the only or even the best way to handle certain people. In this way it also gets away from the harmful gendered and racial dynamics of a word like "criminal," which helps to disrupt the linked White supremacy and sexism of the PIC.

    We can use language and ideas to transform how people think about what makes them safe. We can challenge the ways people are told to imagine what makes their communities safe and create materials that makes clear a vision of community safety that does not rely on controlling, caging, or removing people. We need to be able to determine and create safety for ourselves, without leaving anyone behind. In creating materials, we need to recognize how we can best use language to make our ideas clear and common sense, without falling into the trap of "tough on crime" rhetoric that compromises the long-term goal of abolition. Here are some further exercises that might be helpful for thinking about language in your work.

    A. Get out materials and literature that your organization uses (or that the State or other organizations use). Go through these questions to try to understand more critically what the language is doing.

      1. Who is this language addressing? Who is it accessible to? Where is this literature used?

      2. What categories are used to describe:

      • people
      • institutions
      • political systems and ideals

      What political views do those categories back up?

      3. What political message is being sent-how is or isn't that abolitionist? What is the role of cages in the political program being suggested?

      4. How could you change the wording to more clearly oppose all aspects of the PIC? Or, if you're using material you disagree with as an example, how does the language support the PIC?

    B. Pick out one (or two, or however many you want to handle) words, and try to see how it is used, and how you might use it in a more radical way. For example, you might choose "punishment."

      1. Brainstorm all the meanings it has- whose agenda(s) do those meanings serve?

      2. What other words is it closely connected to? What do those connections do?

      3. Where do you hear this word used commonly? By whom?

      4. What other words (maybe "reconciliation" or "responsibility") address some of the same issues and assumptions in different ways?

      5. Are there ways to use the word "against itself"- to use it in a way that challenges the way it's most commonly used right now?

    The point here is not just to change the words we use, but to examine how changing our words changes what we can see. It can also help point out what assumptions we might decide to hold onto. We can agree that there is a difference between stealing a stereo and hurting another person, but saying "non-violent" and "violent" is only one system for showing that difference, one set up by the State through its laws. We validate that State action every time we use this distinction.

    Critical Resistance (CR) works to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. This article first appeared in the Critical Resistance Toolkit and is reprinted with permission. To order a copy of the CR toolkit, call (510) 444-0464 or visit


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