Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Prisoner by Another Name...

Why does the jail call those in its charge prisoners?

Posted By on August 2, 2016, 4:23 PM

click to enlarge If you're labeled as a prisoner, how does that impact your view of your future? - STEPHEN DARK
  • Stephen Dark
  • If you're labeled as a prisoner, how does that impact your view of your future?
I heard from a reader with a keen interest in justice issues and a layman's irritation at what she views as nonsensical policy. 

Her ire was raised by the sight of the Salt Lake County jail's transportation bus which bears in large letters both on the back and the side, the words 'prisoner transport.' 

"My uneducated guess is the majority of the individuals in this bus are not sentenced to prison, rather, being held in jail for a variety of reasons," she writes. "In most cases, they may not have actually been charged yet, just cited. Innocent until proven guilty, said no one, ever," she concludes sarcastically.

I asked the Salt Lake County jail's public information officer, Cammie Skogg why it was that the jail terms those it holds in its facilities as prisoners, rather than inmates, and why it identify them as "prisoners," when many of them have only been cited rather than charged or even sentenced, whether to jail or prison.

Sgt. Skogg emailed back that, " 1) 'Prisoner' by definition is a person legally held in prison/jail as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial. 'Inmate' is synonymous to prisoner and therefore it’s definition. 2) You cannot presume that every person on that transport vehicle at any given time has not been convicted of their charges, any more than assume that they have. We hold and transport both convicted, sentenced and pre-trial detainees and they are, at times, transported in the same vehicle."

This response still left our unhappy reader scratching her head. What about the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which Utah had made so much noise about being a part of? Even if the fruits of that collaboration in terms of money for treatment are thin on the ground. Wasn't such a policy against the fundamental thrust of what JRI is about, she asked?

According to the prison's website, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative " is basically to continue holding offenders accountable and securing our communities—but in a way that takes into account individual risks and treatment needs." 

The website goes on to state that, "JRI is an all-encompassing effort to make the Courts and Board of Pardons and Parole selective about who they send to prison. It also aims to help us work with probationers to ensure they never come to prison, and to work with inmates and parolees to ensure they never come back to prison."

So if Utah supports this drive toward greater discrimination of those it chooses to incarcerate and those it chooses to treat, perhaps getting rid of the label prisoner might be a good step toward encouraging those at the jail for minor offenses to view their future with a little more hope? 

"Perhaps the definition should be changed," the reader says, in response to the county's view. "Labels matter."
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