New York removes the word ‘detainee’ from state law

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ALBANY, NY – New York has amended several state laws to remove the word “inmate” and replace it with “incarcerated person” to refer to people serving time in prison.

The amendments, signed into law Monday by Governor Kathy Hochul, aim to reduce the stigma of being in prison. Prison reform advocates have said the term “inmate” has a dehumanizing effect. Prisoners say it can seem demeaning when prison guards call them inmates, especially in front of their families during in-person visits.

“Language matters,” said State Senator 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 derided the measure as coddling criminals.

“Marching around a bill that removes the word ‘detained’ from legal documents at a time when crime in New York continues to climb at an alarming rate shows you a lot about how wrong the Democrats’ agenda is,” said Assemblyman Chris Tague, a Republican from Schoharie, a town west of Albany.

The change is the latest in the history of the state legislature to alter terms of state law that may be considered obsolete or offensive.

Last month, Hochul signed legislation replacing the term “mental retardation,” or other variations, with “developmentally disabled” in state law. In 2018, the legislature passed a law replacing all occurrences of the words “firefighter” or “policeman” with gender-neutral terms like “firefighter” or “police officer” in official documents and statutes.

A similar measure to replace the word “detainee” in a slew of other state laws was signed into law in 2021 by former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Michel DeGraff, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “The choice of words to describe certain individuals is important. Especially when it comes to vulnerable people in any way.

“When you say someone was born a slave (for example), it may make someone think that there is a category of people who are slaves by nature, but there is no such category”, did he declare. “No one is born a slave. You are a human being, then you were enslaved.

DeGraff said language allows people to process the past and present, and by changing the words, “you help people better understand who they are and how they got to where they are.”

However, making changes to help people who have committed crimes carries some political risks this election year.

Hochul’s gubernatorial opponent, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, has made fear of crime a central issue in his campaign, as have other Republican congressional candidates. Violent crime rates have increased in the United States since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hochul said social justice and security can go hand in hand.

“By treating all New Yorkers with dignity and respect, we can improve public safety while ensuring New Yorkers get a second chance,” she said in a statement.

Maysoon Khan is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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