Last month inspectors reported on a prison where “a variety of well-embedded arrangements aimed at keeping residents and staff safe were in place”. Good news, except perhaps for Prisons Minister Alex Chalk who so dislikes the term “residents” he is seeking to prevent prison staff using it to describe or refer to people in prison.
Chalk has more important things to worry about than opening up an unnecessary front in the culture wars. But he reportedly believes the increasing use of alternative language is sending mixed messages about how the state and wider society perceives serious criminals. Apparently “we should be speaking plainly and not pretending that these people are angels residing in a cell out of choice”.
While far from being the most important problem in prisons, language can be important. I recall seeing a notice from a Governor a couple of years back reminding staff not to talk about “feeding” at mealtimes or “bending up” when applying restraint. Would Chalk prefer a return to this sort of plain speaking?
There has been an overdue recognition of the importance of treating people in prison with respect and dignity, giving them a voice and showing and encouraging trust. Why? Not least because more positive perceptions of so-called procedural justice by prisoners predict lower levels of misconduct, better emotional well-being and mental health outcomes and lower rates of future reoffending.
Of course, the dreadful conditions and experiences faced by many prisoners can make the term resident look peculiarly ironic and ill fitting. But requiring the application of a generic label of prisoner could allow Mr Chalk and his colleagues to ignore those awful realities, or worse justify them under the dismal doctrine of less eligibility. He would do well to remember that people are sentenced to prison as a punishment, not for a punishment.
In an important statement launched this week, the United Nations is rightly promoting "a rehabilitative approach to prison management that fosters the willingness and ability of prisoners to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives upon release, and that is embedded in a decent, safe and healthy prison environment and the positive engagement of officers with prisoners".
As part of such an approach, surely governors and staff should be able to continue to use terminology which communicates most productively with prisoners and their families, something which has been particularly important during the pandemic. If the language contributes towards a more rehabilitative ethos so much the better. Referring to people in prison as residents won’t solve all of the problems in the system but neither will it do any harm.