The Power of Words

          By Jasmine Robles, Rutgers University Senior and  NRCCFI student coordinator of See Us Support Us 2016.

Words matter because they have the power to shape a human’s feelings about themselves and others. Communication is essential in all relationships, as it permits us to share our interests, concerns, and support. It helps us to sort out our lives and make decisions and to collaborate with others. Successful communication depends on the way we talk and on the meaning we make of what we hear. As the famous quote goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is stronger than them both”

Children with incarcerated parents often hear words that highlight the negative or stressful aspects of parental incarceration; words that increase the shame and stigma. In the first week of the See Us Suppport Us Campaign, we reminded people that we, the children with incarcerated parents, come from varied circumstances and see their parent’s incarceration from varied perspectives. Last week we focused on resilience and the positive and protective parts of our lives. We are ordinary children facing extraordinary stressors. We have committed no crime, yet we pay a steep price due to our parent’s choices or circumstances. The trauma is real. The stigma is real. In our work at NRCCFI the children and youth have said that they feel ashamed because of the reactions of others not only because of the parent’s crime or incarceration. The body language and the words of teachers, coaches, social workers pastors and mentors, feels judgmental. Many mentors and youth group leaders and camp counselors and others are trained not to mention the parent unless the child brings it up, but if language and labels feel demeaning it increases shame and embarrassment and then, they will never bring it up and lose the opportunity for support

A process that humanizes these people / our parents who’ve made a mistake, and are paying for it is essential for the kids and the parents. Labels become something hard to get rid of, so squashing this stigma starts with you, with us, with words. Understanding that whenever you say inmate or criminal or even prisoner in referring to an incarcerated individual, you are talking about  a child’s parent, or family member. When we start to use language differently, our actions and feelings  about the parents and the children changes. Bryan Stevenson, an activist on this matter said, “ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Words matter.




Why I believe that #Words Matter

        By Ebony Underwood


Due to the stigma & shame attached to words such as “convict,” “inmate,” “ex-con” “criminal,” “drugs offender,” many children with incarcerated parents do not often publicize their experience. As a daughter of an incarcerated parent, I did not want to hear my father being referred to as a convict, criminal or drug offender. He was dad in my eyes and I loved him. Was it wrong of me to love my Dad because he was incarcerated? No. He’s my dad and will always be my dad, whether he is incarcerated or not. The negative connotations around these words may make you question your feelings, thoughts and emotions for the ones you love. In accordance with the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights #7: I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because of my parent’s incarceration. We love and care about our parents and should never feel stigma or ashamed because of their mistakes. Therefore, teachers, caregivers and the general public must be mindful that #WordsMatter to children of incarcerated parents. 

 Ebony Underwood is a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow, filmmaker, and creative consultant with more than 15 years of experience in the music and entertainment industry. She is a daughter with an incarcerated father—an experience that she only recently began to share publicly. She launched a website and has produced a documentary short, Hope for Father’s Day, about her family’s story, published articles in Huffington Post and Vibe, and recently spearheaded the Google-initiated digital Love Letters campaign to demonstrate the unbreakable bond between a child and their incarcerated parent.

Love Letters Links: 
Mothers Day

Fathers Day

NRCCFI’s tips for how you can change the words and change the lens
  1. Describing the children and parents : Substitute incarcerated parents for inmate or prisoner. The word inmate evolved in the 19th century from a word used to describe lodgers or others living under the same roof but not related, to a label for residents of psychiatric hospitals first and then prisons. It carries a connotation of unstable and incapable. In the 1980’s families of the incarcerated began to insist that the word prisoner be used instead. In more recent years, the children and families have reported that the terms incarcerated parent and returning parent are less stigmatizing and create less fear of judgment than the word prisoner and ex-prisoner. Most Correctional Facilities use inmate or prisoner but many are beginning to shift the narrative when addressing the issues related to the children of the incarcerated.


  1. Describing the reasons for incarceration: Substitute incarcerated individual or incarcerated parent for criminal. Many incarcerated parents are in jails awaiting trial. They have not yet been convicted and are therefore still innocent until proven guilty. Others plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to get lesser sentences. The word criminal can be applied to those that have broken a very wide range of laws. Children report that when the word criminal is used to talk about their parent, it  causes intense anxiety, defensiveness and anger.


  1. Substitute visitor /visiting for visitation: Visitation is the legal term used by the courts and official systems such as corrections and child welfare, Historically it was also used to refer to an appearance of a ghost or apparition. To humanize the act of visiting an incarcerated parent and shift away from the institutional language , use visit and visiting as you would for any other act of visiting a relative or friend.


One more note on words

Much of the literature designed to support children of the incarcerated uses the words choices or mistakes in describing a parents crime or reasons for incarceration. Many children are ok when the literature talks about a parent being incarcerated for making a bad choice or a mistake. Be mindful, however, that these words may not apply to parents who are wrongfully convicted, not yet convicted or for whom their race or ethnicity played a role in the charge and sentence. Also,many children of addicted parents struggle with the notion that their parents chose drugs over them. Their counselors work hard to help them understand that a definition of addiction is continuing behavior in spite of consequesnces and that it may not be a choice. The words incarceration or  circumstances can often be substituted such as  “Children feel guilty by association and shouldn’t be punished because of their parent’s incarceration or  circumstances . ”

                      For more information on humanizing language see :                                           


#Words Matter Resource for Using Humanizing Language from the Osborne Association