By Christopher Zoukis
Prisons are political places.  Nothing shows this more than how those in prisons choose to refer to themselves.  Some prefer the term prisoner.  Others prefer inmate.  And still others favor convict.  Since prison is such a political environment, it is important to refer to those in the prison context pursuant to their chosen term, whether it is inmate, prisoner, or convict.  But how to decide which term to use?  What is the significance of each term?

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Facts Are Facts: Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts Are All the Same

Regardless of whether the person in prison prefers to refer to himself as an inmate, a prisoner, or a convict, they are all one in the same, in a general sense of role.  Prisons house people who are convicted of crimes.  They are incarcerated.  And as incarcerated people, they are officially known as inmates, casually referred to as prisoners, and, some, think of themselves as convicts (a very politically loaded term in the prison context).  What differs is the way they see themselves and how that personal view determines or directs their interactions with others.  As with those on the outside, how these people see themselves influences how they interact with others.

It is important to realize that seemingly insignificant matters can become significant ones in the insular world of prison.  In the prison context, calling someone an inmate, for example, can be akin to calling them a “snitch” or an informant.  And calling someone a prisoner, when the person feels that they are, in fact, a convict, can be an insult too, though certainly not as bad as calling them an inmate.  Prison politics can be messy and, unfortunately, dangerous.  As such it is important to understand not only what each of the terms means, but what each symbolizes.  By understanding these terms, not only can respect be given where it is due, but the prison culture itself can be better understood and the players involved with it quantified.

Inmate: Official, but Perceived as Being Subservient

Those outside of prison tend to think of those incarcerated as inmates.  Many think that the term inmate denotes an incarcerated person, and that by using the clean term of inmate, the derogatory term of prisoner is avoided.  It isn’t so much a term of respect, but a term of being.  That is the view from outside the walls.  This is the exact opposite of how those who are in prison view the term of inmate.

Those in prison who have done some time consider the term inmate to be derogatory.  They see it as an incarcerated person who does what the administration asks them to do.  (Think of someone being patted on the head and told, “Now that is a good inmate,” and you’ll get the right idea.)  Somehow the term inmate is perceived as denoting an obedient dog, and one that is called “Dog,” not its actual name.  Depending on your perspective, it is sad to see so many “inmates” in American prisons today.

Due to the significance of this term — a term meant to denote an obedient incarcerated person who probably informs on others in the prison context — it can be a problem to call someone an inmate who doesn’t identify as such.  It can be viewed as so disrespectful that the only way to defend one’s honor is to engage in acts of violence against the person who inappropriately uses the term.  Naturally, we’re talking about ideologies and theoretical defenses to insults.  While violence is much more prevalent in the prison culture, there is still an impetus for employing it.  And this impetus — risk and potential sanctions — does dissuade some who would engage in acts of violence, even if the inspiration is a perceived front to one’s dignity or respect (i.e., calling someone in prison an “inmate” would probably be one such situation where even if the person was angered by the expression, it just wouldn’t be worth it to fight over the term’s utilization).

The other side of the coin has to do with those who don’t buy into the politics of prison.  There are those who either are short timers or those who choose to stay out of prison politics not out of ignorance, but by informed choice.  Those who fall into this group don’t much care what term is utilized to refer to them.  They see themselves as people who are in prison, serving their time, and will one day get out and never again be bothered by American corrections.  Whether they are called inmate, prisoner, or convict, they care not.  Truth be told, these are probably the more rational ones, but not necessarily the ones best equipped for life in prison, where criminality (and a sense of male bravado) tends to be the central tenet of interpersonal relations.

Prisoner: The Middle of the Road

The term upon which most incarcerated persons can agree is that of prisoner.  A prisoner, unlike an inmate, is perceived as being an average incarcerated person.  Prisoners do their time.  Prisoners keep their business to themselves, and prisoners don’t bother themselves with others’ business.  The term prisoner is neutral since it doesn’t denote a willingness to obey the prison administration’s desires and whims, but then again, it doesn’t denote a drive to disobey the prison administration either.

From the long-term incarcerated person’s perspective, the term prisoner expresses a person who is in prison.  It doesn’t denote someone who’s a patsy for the prison administration, as the term inmate does.  And it doesn’t denote someone who feels as if they run the prison, as the term convict does.  It is a middle ground term which the majority of incarcerated persons can agree on, at least tacitly, for prisoners are anything but agreeable, whereas inmates most certainly are (as the politics of prison would assert).

While those outside of prison might think it more respectful to utilize the terminology of inmate, the use of that clean and clinical term backfires, especially in the higher security prisons and with those who have done significant time in them.  Best political practice says that calling someone in prison a prisoner will not cause offense, irrespective of whether the person identifies as an inmate, a prisoner, or a convict.  While there might be some rub with the latter, the term prisoner will not be deemed an insult as the term inmate would.

Convict: A Tough Outlook On Life

The term convict is a term which all but those who view themselves as convicts can agree has a very negative connotation.  In the prison society, convicts are those who feel that they rule the roost.  Convicts are the prisoners who are gruff, violent, and demand respect.  Convicts feel that they are in charge of whatever goes on inside a certain prison or a certain cellblock.  And years ago, convicts used to do just that.

Back in the 1960s through the 1980s, prisons were more than merely prisons, they were dungeons of unimaginable fears.  Rapes were commonplace.  Murders, too.  And to survive in the prisons of those days, one had to, in the words of one old-timer, “Drink a lot of water and carry a big stick.”  You had to be healthy and willing to fight.  And fight people did.  But as the 90s came around, and significant educational and rehabilitative programming became available to occupy prisoners’ time, prisons started to calm down a bit.  By the 2000s, they more resembled a chicken coup than a dungeon; a place to be warehoused, not tortured.  Sadly, even though the prisons have calmed down, most of the meaningful educational and rehabilitative opportunities have been stripped from them.  And this is the age we are currently in.

In this day and age, there are three types of convicts.  One, convicts at maximum security prisons, where wanton violence is the order of the day.  Two, convicts who lived through prisons of old and have the scars to prove it.  And three, those who think they are convicts, but are simply bullies who think they run something, but really don’t.  The common denominator is that those who identify as convicts are gruff sorts who, depending on your view-point, either cause problems for everyone, or, stay true to the convict code.  It is all a matter of perception.

Convicts often speak of a “Convict code,” a set of social conventions that are viewed as essential in higher security facilities, where the slightest misstep can be fatal.  For example, under the Convict Code, one never, ever reports another convict’s business to a guard, even if that convict is dying in his cell and needs medical attention.  There are also “hands off” rules, dictating conflicts between races, wherein anyone who has an altercation with a member of another race without consensus agreement will be punished by his own racial group, a policy that reduces the possibility of serious group racial conflicts.  It is a convict-run policy that is the product of long, painful experience, as is most of the Convict Code.  While much of this code may appear harsh to outsiders, the Convict Code is, at least in the eyes of many who live by it, a method of ensuring survival.

The convict perspective is all about stratification.  A convict sees himself or herself as the top dog in the prison social hierarchy.  They see normal prisoners as being below them, and inmates below the prisoners.  Even less desirable groups would then be placed below the inmates.  In direct contrast to this, the educated prisoner would view convicts as being lesser than them, but more than an inmate.  And an inmate would view their “civilized” ways to be chief of all.  It turns out that those in prison form groups and classify the groups just as those on the outside do; by placing the group they belong to at the top of the social strata, and find reasons to place other groups below their own.  No real surprise there.

Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts: What to Choose?

In every jail, detention center, prison, and other facility of secure holding there is an underground culture at work.  This culture comprises of those who reside in the correctional facility and their daily interactions.  At the rougher prisons, i.e., maximum security prisons and some medium security prisons, the culture is one influenced by violence and intimidation.  At almost all low security prisons and minimum security prisons there is a culture of complacency.  The difference between these two cultures is life changing and life altering for those who must live in them.  And due to these differences in circumstances, those who reside therein have different self-images and outward expressions thereof.  Some feel that they are an inmate.  Others feel that they are a prisoner.  And still others feel that they are a convict.  I would dare to say that the higher the security of the prison, the higher the ratio of self-described “prisoners” and “convicts” would be.

Regardless of whether we call our incarcerated class inmates, prisoners, or convicts, they are in many ways one and the same.  The difference has to do with self-perception and how it manifests itself externally.  And by understanding the terms of inmate, prisoner, and convict — and what they symbolize — we’ll better understand those they apply to.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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