New York scraps word ‘inmate’ in state law
The changes, signed into law Monday by Gov. Kathy Hochul, are intended to reduce the stigma of being in jail. Prison reform advocates have said the term “inmate” has a dehumanizing effect. Prisoners say it can feel degrading when jail guards refer to them as inmates, especially in front of their families during in-person visits.
“Language matters,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who sponsored the bill. “This is another concrete step our state is taking to make our criminal justice system one that focuses on rehabilitation, rather than relying solely on punishment.”
Republicans ridiculed the measure as coddling criminals.
“Parading around a bill that removes the word ‘inmate’ from legal materials at a time when crime in New York continues to spike at an alarming rate shows you a lot about how misguided the Democrats’ agenda is,” said Assembly member Chris Tague, a Republican from Schoharie, a town west of Albany.
A similar measure to replace the word “inmate” in a slew of other state laws was signed in 2021 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, “Word choice to describe certain individuals does matter. Especially when it comes to individuals who are vulnerable in any way. When you say someone is born a slave (for example), it can make someone think there is a category of people who are slaves by nature, but there is no such category. No one is born a slave. You are a human being, and then you were enslaved.”
DeGraff said language allows people to process the past and the present, and by changing words, “you help people better understand who they are and how they got to be where they are.”
Making changes to help people who have committed crimes, though, carries some political risks this election year.
Hochul said social justice and safety can go hand-in-hand.
“By treating all New Yorkers with dignity and respect, we can improve public safety while ensuring New Yorkers have a fair shot at a second chance,” she said in a statement.