The struggle for acceptance by a good man shadowed by a long-ago crime — the struggle for his very identity — is the central theme of Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables.” One powerful scene in the musical version closes with a big reveal: The protagonist lifts his shirt, exposing the prisoner number tattooed on his chest to the lawman who has pursued him for years.
“Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!”
“Who am I? 24601!”
Give our regards to Broadway for poignantly capturing an essential truth: Second chances are hard won for people who’ve served time behind bars, no matter how determined they are to start over with a clean slate.
In Washington, they’re up against a fearsome trend: More than 95 percent of state prison inmates will return to the community one day, but more than half eventually will be locked up again.
Washington corrections professionals and elected leaders are taking positive steps to stop that cycle. This year, for example, lawmakers approved a statewide re-entry council to help people in prison find a path to reintegration.
Officials have their hearts in the right place trying to turn around a culture in which labels can lead to stigmas, stigmas to hopelessness, and hopelessness to reoffense.
But should the state go so far as soft-pedaling the words it uses for convicted felons in its custody? What about purging “offender” from the Department of Corrections vocabulary? We have mixed feelings about that.
Prison chief Dick Morgan announced in a recent memo that the DOC would phase out “offender” starting Nov. 1. He urged staff to refer to inmates by name or use other terms, such as “student” or “patient” or “individual,” depending on the setting.
“Times change, and so does our language,” Morgan wrote, noting that inmates must learn to define themselves by things other than past criminal behavior.
Some Republican legislators — including Pierce County senators Steve O’Ban and Pam Roach — took umbrage at the memo. They correctly note the DOC has bigger problems to deal with than semantics. The mistaken early release of thousands of inmates over more than a decade sits squarely atop that list.
The DOC should guard against underplaying a harsh reality: Its job is to detain serious convicted felons in high-security penal institutions. It does not have clients, customers or guests, and it does not manage gated communities. No amount of relabeling will change that.
We also wonder about the message being sent to crime victims; they may take offense that “offender” has been replaced with euphemisms and code words. Changes like this should be closely vetted by victims advocates on the new re-entry council.
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, is among those who see the word games as an affront to victims — especially when reprobates like Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer (whom Reichert once chased as King County sheriff), is now no longer deemed an “offender.”
Make no mistake, creating a second-chance culture is an important goal. Lowering the recidivism rate is good for ex-convicts, families and taxpayers. Employment obstacles should be removed; case in point, Tacoma passed a “ban the box” ordinance, which eliminated a question about felony history from city job applications. Parolees also need help with aspects of responsible citizenship, such as getting voting rights restored.
While incarcerated, inmates should have access to education, job training and a range of health and wellness supports, whether that be addiction treatment or yoga classes.
Proper language has its place, too. The word “offender family” should never be attached to spouses and children, as if they’re guilty by association. And in public discourse, we should think twice before using toxic waste analogies, such as Pierce County’s reputation as a “dumping ground” for parolees.
As for the inmates themselves, the true measure of their character is not whatever labels they’re stuck with in prison; it is their resolve to shed these labels after they walk back into the free world, en route to lives of honor and dignity.