Incarcerated Language

Reginald Dwayne Betts
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

This is a story I tell myself about who I am, a story that, in the nature of all telling, conceals as much as it reveals. I am an ex-convict. A felon. Formerly an inmate. When people call me formerly incarcerated or a returning citizen, I do not feel like they are less likely to deny me employment, or housing, or to shake my hand. When the occasion is right, when the need is sufficient, when it has to come up, there is no sanitized way to tell that story. The crimes I committed, intentionally and with enough blasé to make it all cruel, belong to me. The place that I went to at sixteen, the series of prisons, were as much a part of the fabric of this country as everything else. I guess, in the way that anyone returns to a place after having left, I returned home after having gone to prison – but calling me a returning citizen seems, at best, to be confused about all that I lost in the leaving, particularly major aspects of my citizenship, like voting, that are hard for most to get back and impossible for some.

I returned to prison later, after my incarceration, more times than I can remember. And each time, the returning reminded me that who we are, as men and women who have served time in prison, cannot be captured in a word, which is to say, inmate and prisoner, formerly incarcerated and convict all fail at imagining the glimmer and the dimness that I witness on the come back, that I remember, that we all possess, as a quality, I suppose, of being human.

On July 30, 2018, I stepped onto a black passenger bus with fifty others before the morning’s light unmasked the French Quarter. I was with a group of Soros Justice Fellows and Open Society Foundation staff. We were headed to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, called Angola by anyone with reason to name it aloud. I’ve never liked prison tours. While I was incarcerated, the few times wardens came through with guests, most of us felt like we’d become the center of a spectacle. But to call this a tour would be about as accurate as calling prisons institutes of public safety.

Led by Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan, two men who’d each spent more than two decades in Angola before gaining their freedom after long legal battles, we were being reminded of all the ways that the U.S. criminal justice system tries to bury men. The last time I’d gotten up at 3 a.m. to prepare for a bus ride to prison, I’d been shackled and cuffed, an eighteen-year-old kid being shipped to Red Onion State Prison, the first Virginia Super Maximum-Security Prison.

This bus ride was a far cry from that, although as we approached Angola my stomach dropped and my body tightened and my eyes cut into the landscape in the way of animals not certain if they are predator or prey. I returned again, hating the way prisons haunt me. Angola, if measured by land mass, is the largest prison compound in the world. In the West Feliciana Parish, the prison, named after the plantation that once occupied the same land, sits on eighteen thousand acres. Today, prison cells dot a landscape once scarred by slave cabins. So expansive is it that guards, visitors, and prisoners alike use wheels to get around. While we drove, something burned in the distance. And as we rode around, our guide, a retired prison classification officer, gave us facts about the prison. He told us that when inmates first arrive they must work for a single red cent an hour. After a period of time, their pay increases to two pennies. He pointed out the vast landscape of vegetables grown by inmates, the beef being raised that the inmates did not eat. He told us that there are six thousand inmates at Angola, and four thousand are serving a life sentence. He said inmate enough times to rattle my bones, and I was reminded of when I was an inmate and reminded of the long-running language beef: inmate v prisoner v formerly incarcerated person v my name. Then he walked us into a prison law library and everything changed.

What I’ve feared is that the thing we want to call a person, whether it is inmate, prisoner, felon, convict, ex-con, formerly incarcerated person, or returning citizen, is invested in erasure.

In a dimly lit room, the fifty of us found seats around two long perpendicular tables. The room, sparse and undecorated, had rows of shelves of Federal Reporters, a few computers, and more than a dozen men in various states of working–leaned over files of paper, bustling in and out of the single office. In time these men, dressed in the blue jeans and shirts that marked them as prisoners, formed a haggard half-moon around us. Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan introduced the group to this space and these men whom they’d spent decades working with, fighting their cases and the cases of others. And though the time was ours to talk with them, the fifty of us, staring at this group of men working with machinery from another era, struggled for a minute through whatever questions we might have asked. The brother who’d do the most talking, with wide-brimmed glasses and a voice that dominated the room, greeted Norris and Calvin with dap. He smiled and joked in a way that belied the thirty-eight years he’d spent in prison–or explained how he could do the time and still bristle with energy and commitment.

“I don’t know,” said one of the men in the half-moon, when asked about his caseload. He said he’d lost count, the number so high it might frustrate him to inaction if he dwelled on it. To us listening, he sounded, in the way he explained fiercely pursuing cases individually to not lose focus, like some public defenders I’ve known. Others named their case load as 80, 100, 120. The details they could draw up from memory, including which cases were active and which were inactive. As one of the guys explained, the group were all inmate lawyers. Collectively, they’d served hundreds of years in prison. The inmate lawyers worked in groups: a criminal law group, a civil law group, an institutional grievance group, a mental health group, and one guy who worked on death row–in pursuit of freedom for others. There, when he was a prisoner, Calvin Duncan cofounded the New Orleans Innocence Project, as he challenged his own conviction. “We’ve helped fifty people get released on actual innocence,” Calvin told us. And he’d know, being one of the fifty to leave Angola knowing they’d spent those years incarcerated as a free man.

The efforts all seemed astonishing. If you want to understand Angola, watch The Shawshank Redemption, one man told us. Part of the struggle was what time does to men. At Angola there are three graveyards filled with men who have died in prison. And as the half-moon of brothers explained their work, several times people said inmate lawyers. And again I was reminded of the language riff. And then someone, Norris or Calvin, said that Louisiana is one of only two states that allow non-unanimous juries to sentence men to life in prison. Of the four thousand men serving life in prison in Louisiana, more than 80 percent are African American. The law that allows non-unanimous juries to sentence people to life is an extension of slavery in a way that is non-debatable. The 1898 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, an all-white affair, passed a provision that allowed non-unanimous juries in non-capital cases. The result nullified the role of any black jury that might be empaneled. Explaining the decision making, John B. Knox, the president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention, in 1901 said, “Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.” In the wake of that, what I’d learned listening to the men in Angola, but also what I’d learn of their improbable willingness to master the tools that had been used to confine them, I had to ask myself what was in a name. When I was in prison, I wasn’t half the lawyer these men were, and even with a Yale Law degree, I’d not accomplished half as much, even working under ideal circumstances. To my ears, inmate lawyer seemed the highest compliment to be made in the room.

Even writing this, I imagine that I am missing the point. Conflating multiple arguments. It’s true, being a mediocre inmate lawyer led me to want to be a licensed one. But it’s more than that. Remembering the men in that room, I can’t help but wonder if the argument has ever been about the language that we use, but instead about the policies that allow certain linguistic choices to drag a people down. The center of their concern, certainly, was policies and not language.

In an essay, the late poet Reginald Shephard wrote that the word elite should be expunged from the English language because it is no longer descriptive, only pejorative. The same impulse that drove Shephard–the degeneration of language into insult–has driven many activists and people who spent time in prison to call for a shift away from the words felon, inmate, offender, and convict to the use of formerly incarcerated person or formerly incarcerated. This response, an effort to counteract a decades-long U.S. policy of propaganda meant to consign those who have committed crimes to a permanent state of reduced citizenship, while important, has too often been reduced to a language problem. More accurately, we might consider the use of certain language around incarceration as being weaponized in the aid of policies that have made it easier to incarcerate people for far longer periods of time–that same language has made it nearly impossible to repeal and replace that same legislation. But that’s not an argument to find sanitized ways of speaking of men and women who have been convicted of crimes or served time incarcerated.

And so if, as the philosopher Jason Stanley says, the democratic deliberation becomes impossible when authority figures use language like “super-predator,” “wilding,” and “crack epidemic” to form policy discussions, the converse must be equally true: conversations about reform become impossible when progressives insist on sanitized words like “formerly incarcerated persons” and “returning citizen.” Any discussion of the language of incarceration, then, must also raise another question: Why has the propaganda machine around decreasing U.S. incarceration rates been unable to conquer its own inertia and begin to do, as positive propaganda, what the language of super predators did for President Clinton’s advocacy for the 1996 Crime Bill? The absence is about an underlying failure: a refusal to figure out what it is that the framers of language in this case are after helping us to understand.

When visiting San Francisco a few weeks ago, I noticed that most of the trashcans are labeled “landfill.” The name is meant to reflect how we understand a practice, not to name the box where we drop garbage. Beside the landfill receptacle were two others: “recycle” and “compost.” “Landfill,” a single word, changed everything, making the choice become one of contributing to the floating cities of trash in the ocean or saving it. Some would have us believe that inmate, convict, felon all refer to the landfills of society that our policies push many people with criminal records into, but that’s false. Those policies aren’t captured in these words–not even hidden by these words. Maybe, in fact, the policies are hidden by an obsession with these words. Even this, my own obsession.

What I’ve feared is that the thing we want to call a person, whether it is inmate, prisoner, felon, convict, ex-con, formerly incarcerated person, or returning citizen, is invested in erasure. I’ve never had a problem with the litany because I felt that they all, eloquently or not, described a reality. The Virginia Code 18.2-58.1 defines carjacking as:

the intentional seizure or seizure of control of a motor vehicle of another with intent to permanently or temporarily deprive another in possession or control of the vehicle of that possession or control by means of partial strangulation, or suffocation, or by striking or beating, or by other violence to the person, or by assault or otherwise putting a person in fear of serious bodily harm, or by the threat or presenting of firearms, or other deadly weapon or instrumentality whatsoever.

As my lawyer explained the time I faced in prison, life for carjacking, I realized how exacting the definition was. And if found guilty, even before being found guilty, the inmate number I had meant that I was an inmate. I’ve never wanted to redefine carjacking; instead, always, I wanted to define myself as more.

Before we left the law library at Angola, Norris Henderson pointed out an older man working quietly at a desk near the back. I can’t remember the man’s name. He was African American, like the more than 80 percent of the men there. Norris said, “He’s been locked up since before Kennedy was assassinated.” My problem has always been that I’ve developed a habit of putting myself in everyone else’s story, particularly men who have served time in prison. This man, old enough to be my grandfather, was incarcerated at sixteen, like me. I shuddered, trying to imagine what all that time meant.

Shifting language can be about more than rhetorical propaganda; it can be about honesty. We have a particular kind of challenge in the United States: our language provides labels that fail to, in their singularity, capture metaphor with any kind of concision. Sujatha Baliga, an attorney and restorative justice practitioner, introduced me to the work of the Honorable Judge Yazzie. Judge Yazzie writes that in the Navajo language there is no word for felon, for offender, for convict. Instead, the word is, roughly translated, “he who behaves like he has no family.” I imagine that we are still struggling to find a word to capture that. But I also imagine that if we did, and if we were honest, that word would describe those who create policies and laws that guarantee so many people will lose all their good years in prison. And we would obsess over changing those policies and repairing what’s broken in the architects of this system, instead of fretting over my name.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, the poetry collection Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and Bastards of the Reagan Era, winner of the 2016 PEN New England Award in Poetry. He is currently a doctoral candidate in law at the Yale Law School.
Originally published:
October 1, 2018


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