Government documents are often “sorely lacking” in showing respect for people who wind up behind bars or who used drugs, David Getchell of Gray told legislators last spring.

He called on them to rewrite state statutes “with language that represents the humanity of a person” in order to avoid stigmatizing them.

Gayla Sheldon, who called herself a resident of the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham, urged legislators to get rid of words such as prisoner, inmate and repeat offender.

“Why use such language that will tear a person down more?” Sheldon asked.



At their urging, the Legislature agreed last spring to see what could be done to strip away the sorts of words that Sheldon and Getchell suggested they remove from the statutes.

The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers supported the measure.

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“Words matter. Language matters. The words we choose and the language we use signals to the world at large the things and people we value — and those that we don’t,” it testified.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Bill Pluecker, a Warren independent, required a working group to identify problematic terms — such as convict and drug user — and suggest changes.

A new report from the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, submitted to the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety this week, suggests dozens of rewrites to state laws to carry out the Legislature’s intent.

The report lists revisions to the language in statutes related to the departments of Corrections, Public Safety, and Health and Human Services.

It said that the “specific stigmatizing terms and their substitutes” consisted of a few problematic terms.

The report recommends changing “prisoner, inmate or convict” to “resident of a correctional facility” or “resident of a jail.”

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Where the law says “drug user,” the report would change the wording to “person who uses drugs.”

A probationer would be revised to “client of the Department of Corrections.”

Any reference to “mentally ill person” would be changed to “person with a mental illness.”

The Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety will consider what to do with the report. Pluecker said it would be used as the basis for revising the statutes this year.

The corrections community, though, isn’t waiting for the lawbooks to be rewritten.

Randall Liberty, corrections commissioner, told the committee last year that his department kicked off a campaign in 2020 that it called Language Matters.

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The “department-wide initiative to ensure the use of person-centered language,” he said, had a goal of “de-stigmatizing incarceration and many of the circumstances and issues associated with it, while also changing a negative narrative and view of those working in corrections who are often stigmatized themselves.”

Liberty said correction staff was already “using less traditional language these days when referring to those in our custody,’ including referring to prisoners and inmates as “residents.”

“This change is part of the department’s commitment to reducing stigma, which began unofficially in 2019 when we partnered with McLean Hospital of Massachusetts on their deconstructing stigma campaign, which seeks to normalize seeking and receiving support during times of challenges, be it mental health, substance use, trauma, or otherwise,” Liberty said.

“The impetus of this partnership with McLean Hospital was to encourage staff and residents to feel comfortable seeking support for mental health issues,” he said, because “no one should suffer where there is support available.”

Liberty told legislators, “All this is to say, we get it. Stigma is real and it is insidious. Using person-first language is one way to fight against stigma.”


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