Sticks and Stones

Every week brings new surprises. This week, I met the new Director of The Why Not? Trust – no, not the night club in Edinburgh, but a subsidiary of Care Visions currently focused on support for continuing relationships for young people coming out of care. This includes, for example, support for young people held in Polmont who don’t have families or supportive relationships beyond staff from care homes.

Meeting the new Director, Nikki Thomas, reminded me how easy it is for us to become immune to our environment. She was pleased to know the flexibility of our definition of ‘family’ and that people who are not partners or blood relations of someone in prison can still receive support from us if they have a relationship with someone in prison. However, she was shocked to hear from a prison officer at Polmont about something called the Email A Prisoner Scheme.

This is language we use all the time and, to us, is simply a tool for family contact. For someone hearing this for the first time as an outsider, however, the implications are very different. If you are hearing this language in relation to your partner, your parent, your child, how would that make you feel? As practitioners immersed in the justice world, we forget to be shocked at how we ourselves can label and stigmatise simply by the language we have grown accustomed to using.

Calling someone a ‘prisoner’ casts that identity upon them. If you refer to them as a person in prison, a person held in prison, a person in prison custody – or indeed when we refer to children with a parent in prison – this refers to a person’s circumstances and not to their persona. If we want to support families, we need to recognise their family members as people and not as prisoners, offenders (or ex-offenders), addicts, or abusers. The shorthand is easy, but it also perpetuates a stigma we are trying to end.

Families Outside is not alone in this effort to shift the terminology. Our colleagues at Phoenix Futures recently released a publication on ‘Recovery Friendly Language’, while the Scottish Drugs Forum has been discussing ‘People-First’ language and the need to move even further forward from such efforts to reduce negative language and stigma. If we want to support people to move beyond an identity and a behaviour, we need to work to ensure this identity isn’t a millstone that hangs around their necks in perpetuity. Names can – and do – hurt.


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