The wording change announced this week drew criticism from some state leaders, who say the troubled department has enough public-safety issues to focus on besides semantics.
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) is phasing out the word “offender” in an attempt to shake a negative social stigma connected with the term.
For prisoners in classes, staff should now use “students.” And for those in the infirmary, they should say “patients.” “Individuals” is a better term, too, the department says.
The change aims to reverse negative stereotyping that follows inmates after their release, DOC Acting Secretary Richard Morgan said in a memo announcing the change this week.
“Unfortunately, what starts out as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “This is something we can address.”
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But soon after the announcement became public this week, some state leaders criticized the decision, saying the troubled department has enough public-safety issues besides correcting semantics.
The department started using “offender” in the early 2000s, after dropping “inmate,” as a general term to describe prisoners of both genders, whether they are in prison, on work release or supervised in the field, Morgan says in the memo.
But now, Morgan writes, the word has contributed to some unintended consequences.
“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’ ” he says.
The debate over how to refer to prisoners has gone on for years, though he said it’s unclear if any research exists on how the verbiage affects people.
“He (Morgan) was mindful that other corrections systems had been doing something similar,” Barclay said. “He wasn’t trying to follow a trend or lead a trend.”
Ridding the system of the term, however, is complicated. Prison documents and policies use the term, which Morgan says the department will modify with time.
“We have many systems and proprietary tools that use the word ‘offender,’ and those will take much longer to address,” he says. “But we need to start somewhere.”
For a group of Republican senators, the potential legal issues that could arise with the change is concerning. In a letter to Morgan — signed by state Sen. Mike Padden, Sen. Pam Roach, Sen. Kirk Pearson, Sen. Ann Rivers and Sen. Steve O’Ban — the group criticized the “Orwellian” attempt to affect the psychology of a population by changing the term.
“There was no consultation with the Legislature, to our knowledge, in this decision,” they say. “Several statutes and your own department’s policies and procedures clearly designate those within the prison system as ‘offenders.’ ”
To abandon the term, the letter continues, could create legal uncertainties about whether particular provisions continue to apply to people in prison.
“The agency’s focus on this matter is curious in light of the crisis this past year created by its inaccurate sentencing calculations,” the letter continued, referring to the mistaken early release of prisoners due to a long-standing computer programming error. “Your agency’s focus on semantics creates doubt in our mind that it has learned from its mistakes.”
Barclay had no comment on the letter Friday night.
Another opponent, U.S. Congressman Dave Reichert, a former King County sheriff up for re-election on Tuesday, said the following in an emailed statement:
“Victims and their loved ones should not be compromised in favor of political correctness,” he said. “The state should be more concerned with the safety of our citizens than the feelings of inmates who have been proven guilty.”
When asked about the opposition, spokesman Barclay said the department intends to “continue reaching out to our various stakeholders” and “talk about what the intention behind the memo is.”
“Our goal is not to upset individuals, but really fulfill our mission of more public safety, and part of that is to guarantee a good, strong, safe release back to the community …”