Learn the Lingo

Fundamental Concepts

In an effort to reduce stigma, bias, and stereotyping, Chainless Change uses humanizing, person-first language to refer to people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system. In order to engage with our work, which is directly aimed at ending mass incarceration, we recommend that newcomers become familiar with the following concepts and terms:
1) Criminal Legal System

Often referred to as the “justice system,” we refer to the federal, state, and local governmental agencies that are tied to policing, overcriminalization, and mass incarceration as the “criminal legal system”. They have yet to provide collective justice. We also do not view these entities as “correctional,” as recidivism rates tell a very different story.

2) Abolition

Ending the practice of using incarceration, community control, and exile as a response to things perceived as illegal. It is an effort to stop overcriminalization of poverty, behavioral health conditions, blackness, and other oppressed identities. Abolition explores alternatives that create space for transformation. Many know and believe there needs to be a deep, structural dismantling of how we handle and even think about what we perceive as crime in our country.

3) Returning Citizen

An individual who has spent time in prison or jail, who is now returning to the community. Many returning citizens face great barriers to reentry, as well as collateral consequences, which only promotes recidivism (re-entering the system, instead of society).

4) Recidivism

The likelihood of someone who is justice-involved reoffending and reentering the criminal legal system. It is important to note that recidivism rates are strongly tied to the provision or a lack of timely and culturally appropriate resources for returning citizens.

5) Justice-Involved

We use this term to describe anyone who has personal experience with the criminal legal system that has resulted in arrest, conviction, probation, and/or incarceration.

6) Justice-Impacted

Those whose lives are affected when their loved ones come into contact with the criminal legal system. // Example: A father is arrested, leaving his wife alone with their child. In his absence, resources are drained, and daycare is no longer affordable. The mother and child have not been in direct contact with the criminal legal system, but they were heavily impacted by the effects of the father's justice-involvement.

7) Recovery

A life-long process requiring self-determination, social support systems, and access to community and resources. We identify recovery as a path towards wholeness from mental health, substance use, contact with the criminal legal system, and traumatic experiences.

8) Recovery Community Organization (RCO)

A peer-led, community-based organization, whose governing body and staff consists of at least 51% people who identify as someone in recovery from substance use or behavioral health conditions. At Chainless Change, our approach to recovery includes building community with others who have experienced the harmful impacts and traumas associated with the criminal legal system.

9) Recovery-Oriented System of Care

The core set of resources, organizations and groups who both insulate and encourage those who are in recovery. Every partner in the system of care must have a deep understanding of the unique challenges, traumas, and fears that justice-involved people often face. They must also practice cultural humility and a willingness to continue learning about the needs of various sub-populations.

10) Resilience

One’s ability to recover or ‘bounce back’ from challenges or difficulties. While resilience is an important ingredient in the recovery toolbox, more focus must be put on challenging, transforming, and reconstructing the systems that require people to become resilient in the first place.

Relevant Examples of Person-Centered Language

Outdated or inappropriate language: Felon, convict, ex con, criminal, jail bird, ex-offender

Person-centered language: Justice-involved, person with an arrest record, returning citizen, community member, person who is system-involved, person

Outdated or inappropriate language: Inmate, detainee, prisoner

Person-centered language: Person in jail, incarcerated person, person in state custody, people

Outdated or inappropriate language: Patient, client, consumer, case

Person-centered language: Participant, community member, person receiving services, peer, people

Outdated or inappropriate language: Mentally ill, handicap, disabled, psych patient, suffering from mental illness, crazy, bipolar, schizophrenic, terms that identify a person by a condition

Person-centered language: Person living with a mental health condition, person in recovery from a mental health condition, experiencing mental illness, person with behavioral health history, disabled person, people

Outdated or inappropriate language: Addict, drugie, junkie, crack head, alcoholic

Person-centered language: Person with a history of substance use, person in recovery, person who uses drug