This is a guest post from David Breakspear and Philip Mullen from the Revolving Doors Agency.
The dangers of labelling
Stigmatising language dehumanises the individual and widens the gap between probation and people under probation supervision
Over the last year Revolving Doors has spoken to 141 people with lived experience of probation supervision to better understand the strengths of, and challenges with, the probation service. A consistent theme underpinning good practice from a lived experience perspective is consistent, strengths-based relationships. Relationships that support people under supervision to build the trust needed with their responsible officer to have honest conversations about their needs and the support needed to have these needs met. An important element to building such trust is feeling respected by their responsible officer, demonstrated to them by the attitude and actions their officer takes and the language they use towards them. Building on the guidance we helped to co-develop with Probation Quarterly, in this blog one of our probation lived experience team members reflects on the importance of using neutral and person-centred language to build the honest and trusted relationships necessary for good probation practice.
Throughout my time caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system there have been many constants. Some have been bad; others have been good. I still remember the days when you couldn’t even speak to your landing officer in prison about the issues you faced and when Comp 1s (complaint forms) were a distant future. I am pleased to see progress in this area to move it towards a more positive constant.
One of the constants, however, that has stubbornly remained more negative is the use of language within the criminal justice system. When I say language, I don’t mean the colourful swearing used on prison landings, but the language used when referring to myself and my peers, people with lived experience of the criminal justice system. Language that includes terms like ‘offender’ which is used far too commonly within the criminal justice system and by the media.
These terms, when used by professionals working in the criminal justice systems, fail to show us that they understand how poverty, trauma, problematic substance use and mental ill-health can drive our repeated cycles of crisis and crime, how living in poverty can drive petty theft for survival for example. These terms label us only by the crimes we have committed and fail to demonstrate to us that professionals believe in us as people, people with strengths and ambitions who are capable of change with the right support.
We are pleased that the reunified national probation service has taken positive steps to move away from this stigmatising language that fails to demonstrate to us that probation practitioners understand us, recognise us as people, and believe in us. The use of terms like ‘person/people in prison’ and ‘person/people on probation’ is a hugely positive step in moving away from more draconian terms towards those that describe people us by who we are, people.
We are starting to see the changes we have sought for so long around the appropriate use of language, but the issue has unfortunately been inconsistent use of this language. We hope you will join us in advocating for person-centred language that respects people with lived experience, supports positive relationships for those working in the sector and paves the way for a fair and truly rehabilitative criminal justice system.
At Revolving Doors, and for the reasons echoed above by David, we are committed to using person-centred language across all our work. The language we use is critical and we urge our partners across the sector to take a similar person-centred approach.
 We have spoken to 141 people with lived experience of probation supervision as part of our lived experience inquiry into probation and plan to publish findings from our discovery phase before the end of the year.
Thanks to Bram for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.