Prisons chief testifies why they aren’t called ‘offenders’

OLYMPIA — The outgoing leader of the state Department of Corrections went before lawmakers Thursday to explain his decision to stop referring to the men and women in prison as “offenders” in the agency’s written policies and daily practices.

Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan, whose tenure ends Friday, told a Senate panel he initiated the change in vocabulary because the word “offender” conveys a stigma on individuals long after they are freed.

“There’s a sense of permanence around the department labeling somebody as an offender,” he said at a meeting of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “There’s no conclusion to the time that they are an offender.”

Family members feel the effects, too, he said. They “report to us that they find the term more offensive than inmate, convict, prisoner or any other term,” he said.

Morgan informed employees in a Nov. 1 memo of his intention to substitute “individuals,” “students” or “patients” in place of “offenders” depending on the circumstances. When the memo became public, several Republican lawmakers publicly questioned the decision and said they had heard from many corrections employees and victims of crime upset by the planned change as well.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the committee chairman, used Thursday’s meeting as an opportunity to raise the concerns.

“Maybe it’s a philosophical thing. They are in there for a reason and I guess philosophically it is a concern and apparently it is a concern to a lot of people … who contacted me,” he said.

Sen. Jan Angel, R-Gig Harbor, a committee members, said she received numerous emails asking “what in the heck are you doing?”

“The public doesn’t get it and I think you need to know the public has been paying attention and they feel it is extremely confusing and perhaps even dangerous,” she said.

But Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, offered a counter point. She said in the field of corrections, there’s a constant conversation on what language will bolster efforts to help inmates succeed and not reoffend when they are freed.

“We go through waves of whether the punitive nature of a corrections system has to extend to punitive words,” she said. “I’m supportive of looking at those kinds of issues and finding language that is both descriptive and respectful of the change that is occurring (in prisons).”

Corrections workers and crime victim advocates, who strongly objected to Morgan’s initiative when it became public, did not take part in Thursday’s work session.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, objected when he first heard about it. He joined Padden and three other Republican senators in sending a letter to Morgan in November demanding an explanation.

Pearson, who is not on the committee, said in an interview Thursday he still doesn’t understand the logic.

“It’s hard to justify. If you have someone who murders somebody and you want to call them a client isn’t showing any sensitivity to family members of the person who was murdered,” he said.

Morgan admitted he could have done a better job communicating with employees ahead of the announcement but it would not likely have garnered agreement with his direction.

Meanwhile, Jody Becker-Green, who now serves as deputy corrections secretary, will take the reins from Morgan on Friday and there are no plans to abandon the path blazed by Morgan.

“We will continue to refer to this memo and think about how to appropriately refer to individuals where they are at,” agency spokesman Jeremy Barclay said.

Morgan told the committee the change isn’t easy for anyone, including himself.

“I can’t get the word out of my vocabulary,” he said. “But I try to avoid it. I’m getting better at it.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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