Rethinking technical parole violations and our focus on failure and recidivism.

Individuals, families, and communities are harmed when someone is returned to custody for making a U-turn.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Just a few years ago, Nelson served 90-days at the notorious Rikers Island jail for making an illegal U-turn. If that seems unreasonable, it’s because it is. Under current law, individuals on parole can be re-incarcerated for weeks, months, or even years for violating the conditions of their parole, such as being late for curfew, fare evasion, changing one’s residence without permission, or making a U-turn. The circumstances are often inconsequential. When individuals are re-incarcerated for these non-criminal offenses, they are referred to as technical parole violations (TPVs). While the number of individuals entering our prisons for new crimes is on the decline in many states, those incarcerated for TPVs is increasing significantly, revealing a disturbing trend in our criminal justice system.

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We co-opted a negative vocabulary because it was convenient. Now, it’s time to recognize why words matter.

As someone who spent fifteen years in prison, I know that a simple but effective way to help reform the system is to refrain from using negative vocabulary, words and terms like ‘felon,’ ‘ex-con,’ or ‘inmate.’

I recently received an email from a woman, we’ll call her Sarah*, working in the human services arena asking for “recommendations on places that are friendly towards re-entering female felons.”

The question seems harmless and is likely aimed at being helpful. In truth, a question phrased like this perpetuates the use of dehumanizing language, which we’ve been conditioned to use in reference to people with criminal records. Questions, phrases, and vocabulary like this impede our ability to treat justice-involved people with dignity.

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