Earlier today, Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett announced that county jail staff would begin referring to incarcerated folks as “residents” instead of “inmates.” Sheriff Barrett says that the small change could make a big difference.
“This change in language is a way to humanize those who are incarcerated in our jail, and eliminate some of the barriers they face as they enter back into society,” Barrett said at a press conference today.
Barrett also says the change will reduce recidivism — that’s when a recently released person returns to jail or prison. But, when pressed about that claim, he was unable to back up the statement with empirical evidence.
Says Barrett: “This new language will also help break down barriers that can — and will — reduce recidivism, lower our crime rates and reduce our population here at the Dane County jail… How one views themselves matters, that goes along with our philosophy at the Sheriff’s office.”
Victoria Law is a prison reform advocate and the author of “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration. She says that terms like “convict” and “inmate” can have long-term, detrimental impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“Names have power to either humanize or dehumanize people,” Law tells WORT. “So when we call people convicts, criminals, prisoners, inmates — it labels them as something other or scary. We need to remember that when we talk about people in jails or prisons.”
But Law adds that simply renaming someone to a “resident” shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all.
She continues: “Renaming should not be a replacement for addressing the serious issues facing the jail. If there are a number of horrific conditions and abuses, renaming could be one step towards humanizing — or it could be a way to gloss over the fact that there are more pressing conditions that very much need to be addressed. Calling people “residents” of a jail, while making them less dehumanized, also covers up the fact that they are not willingly in the jail. They are not residents in the way you would be a resident of a certain neighborhood or block.”
The change in language comes as Sheriff Barrett and county leaders are knee-deep in designing a new, $148 million jail facility. That controversial project has suffered years of starts and stops — and pressure from the Derail the Jail coalition to invest in community programs rather than a new jail.
Advocates for the project argue that the county’s current facilities, some of which are decades old, are inhumane and inadequate.
Speaking during today’s press conference, Dane County Board Chair Analiese Eicher said that the project hit another snag earlier this summer — as rising construction costs sidetracked the planning process.
“We are currently having an organization called JFA look at the jail plans to see if we can keep this project within budget, but also continue to move it forward,” Eicher says. “The most important thing is to be able to close floors six and seven of the county building, because they are simply unsafe for residents.”
Eicher says that County leaders expect to receive more information on the jail project next month.
Photo by Jonah Chester