Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washington Prisons To Cease Calling Inmates 'Offenders'

Rennett Stowe
Flickr -

Washington prison inmates will no longer be called “offenders.” The Secretary of Corrections made that announcement in an all-staff message Tuesday.

In his memo, Secretary Dick Morgan said the term “offender” has a negative connotation and adds that “Times change, and so does our language.”

Loretta Fisher with Prison Voice Washington was “overjoyed.” She said inmate advocates have been lobbying for a move away from the term “offender” for some time.

“When you’re a family member and you’re going into the prison to visit your loved one and you hear everyone calling them an offender and maybe you’re bringing your little child and your little child is hearing his or her father called an offender, it starts to feel like a very negative label,” Fisher said.

Instead of offender, the DOC will use terms like “individual” and encourage staff to address inmates by name. A spokesman for the union representing front line prison staff said they would like to see the Department of Corrections focus on improving staff safety and security.

The term “offender” replaced “inmate” in the early 2000s to describe men in women in Washington prisons, on work release and on community supervision.

Secretary Morgan noted the use of offender has been expanded to include references to the families of inmates, as in “offender families.”

“As a stereotype, ‘offender’ is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied,” Morgan wrote in his all staff message announcing the change.

But purging the word “offender” from the DOC lexicon won’t happen overnight. It’s been used for so long it’s embedded in policy manuals and documents.

Washington isn’t alone in re-thinking how it labels prison inmates. The director of Oregon’s Department of Corrections prefers the term “adults in custody,” according to an agency spokeswoman.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."