Inmate or Convict? What’s in a Name?

For many years after I came to work in jails, I was confused as to why those incarcerated in my jails were referred to with such varied and stilted names.Old Idaho Pen


IDOC (the Idaho Department of Corrections) calls its charges offenders.    The Federal Agencies, both ICE and the Federal Marshals, say detainees. The deputies and administrators of the jails use the word Inmates.

I have always been interested in linguistics and etymology (the study of where words come from).  I had always thought that inmate was the correct term for someone incarcerated in a jail or prison. It turns out that the word inmate dates from the 1500s and originally meant someone who was living in a house rented by another.  It derives simply from inn (an inn, of course, but also inside) and mate (companion).  Over time, inmate came to refer to anyone who lived with many other people in a single dwelling.  By the 1830s, the term inmate carried the connotation of the person being confined to the residence, i.e., housed involuntarily.  You were an inmate if you lived with many other people but were housed there against your will.

Among the places where you could be housed against your will originally included hospitals but I don’t think it does, anymore.  If your grandmother was on the medical floor of the local hospital, you would not refer to her as being an inmate.  I think this is so because even though grandma might not have wanted to be there at the hospital, she could leave anytime she liked.

So this is the meaning of the word inmate as it is understood now:  a person who has been has been remanded by some sort of authority to stay at some facility against their will and which they cannot simply leave.  That would apply to residents of jails, prisons and juvenile facilities but also secure psychiatric hospitals.

Understood in this way, inmate seems to be an appropriate descriptive term for residents of our correctional facilities. It also is without any sort of negative connotations, at least that I was aware of.  So why the use of offender or detainee?  They just seem cumbersome and don’t work as well as the original English word inmate.

But then I ran across this interesting website, Prison News Blog, in which the incarcerated author explains the hostility to the word inmate. Evidently, there are two terms in prison culture for someone incarcerated there:  inmate and convict. One does not want to be an inmate.  Inmate is a derisive term, even an insult, because it is believed to imply that the person is a fawning “good little boy,” so to speak.

In the parlance of the penitentiary, we generally understand an inmate as one who becomes a little bit too closely aligned with the institution and its rules. Inmates are quick to engage in conversation with staff members. It seems as if inmates suffer a bit from the Stockholm Syndrome, where they identify more with their captors than with others who share their captivity.

Instead, those incarcerated in prisons prefer to think of themselves as “convicts.”  A convict, in prison culture, is defiant and his own man.

Convicts differ from inmates. Convicts may abide by the rules, but only because they want to avoid additional aggravations or frustrations. Yet if he believes breaking a rule would be in his interest, he will make his choice and live with the consequences. A convict would never cooperate with a staff member in some kind of diabolical deal to spare himself. Convicts have an air of defiance. He may suppress that defiance, though he feels it coursing through his veins.

After reading this, I wondered who had decided that inmate and convict had these different meanings in prison?  And on what basis?  I understand better where this definition of “convict” came from.  As a convict, you have been convicted of some crime.  By the rules of polite society, you are a bad boy.  By preferring to be called a convict, you are embracing your antisocial nature.   It also has some cool harsh consonants that sound manly!

The term inmate, however, has never implicitly meant that you are a good boy or that you are a sheep.  That meaning has been made up.  Throughout its history, inmate has never meant complicit or cooperative.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The historical meaning is that you are being held against your will.  The closest synonym is prisoner.

And this inmate vs. convict dichotomy cannot be applied to many correctional institutions.  Most inmates in jails have not been convicted yet, and so cannot properly be called convicts.  They are pretrial detainees.  And also inmates, of course.  It does not even apply to all prisons.  Many of the residents of Guantanamo prison are not convicts; but they are all inmates.

Nevertheless, I understand that the inmate/convict labels, as described in the Prison News Blog, have become well established usage at most of the prisons in the United States to the point that it truly is a grievous insult to refer to someone as an inmate.  Prison officials haven’t wanted to perpetuate the anti-social meaning of the word convict, and so they have come up with the clumsy term offender.  Similarly, federal officials prefer the term detainees. (Although I wonder what would have happened if prison officials instead had adopted the term convict and applied it to everyone, the cooperative and non-cooperative, alike.  Would that eventually have defused the antisocial meaning being given to the word?)

So far, this has not been a problem in my jails, which are off the beaten path in a less populous state.  We still use the term inmate and so far, have not had any objections, even from the IDOC, ICE and Federal Marshal inmates that we house.  If it ever becomes a problem in the future—well, I guess I will be saying “the detainees that we house.”

Do you use the term inmate at your facility?  How about convict?  Please comment!


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22 thoughts on “Inmate or Convict? What’s in a Name?

  1. I prefer to refer to those incarcerated that I see in the medical unit as patients and leave it at that, since their medical care is my concern and not their legal status. In doing so it allows me to be a unbiased in my treatment. As a general rule in my area, only ICE is referred to as detainees and the rest of the individuals incarcerated are called inmates.

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that in the medical department, we have patients, not inmates or whatever. We should use the term patient in our charting.

    • My son was incarcerated in the WI prison system. They were required to wear nametags with their picture and the word OFFENDER stamped abve it. He told me early on that he found this discouraging since the word, in the present tense, implies that they are currently offending. After that, whenever I would visit I would change the word OFFENDER on the visitation slip to OFFENDED to remind myself that even though Josh had made mistakes in the past, that was the past.

      I took a jail doctor job about 6 weeks ago (shocked that they would hire me in spite of my son’s legal status). Everyone in the jail refers to them as inmates. I think I’ll just revert to patient since that’s what I’m used to. We have some DOC overflow, so I’ll have to ask them what they prefer – see if the inmate vs convict thought holds true in WI.

    • I should have devoted a paragraph or two to this in the article. I agree, Linda, that these are our patients and should be referred to in all of our medical charts as patients. However, inmates are not patients all the time, so even we medical staff sometimes have to say inmate or resident or offender or whatever. Thanks for the comment!

  2. In my world of medical …they are patients. Here at the jail -security refers to them as inmates.Community Corrections calls them offenders. Have not heard of them referred to convicts until they are at the prison ~~~

  3. The inmate/convict labels are for the facility to decide on which they wish to use; when medical see these individuals we call them our patients. When mental health sees them they are either patients or clients depending on the location of the individual.

    • Thanks for the comment! Patient is the preferred term for those in the medical sphere. I know that mental health practitioners prefer to use the term client but I personally don’t get why “client” is preferable to “patient.”


    • Thanks for the comment, Brad! “Offenders” seems to be the preferred term in most prison systems. Jails, not so much.

  5. While the discussion of ‘title’ for these individuals can seem essentially esoteric and semantic; one aspect of this issue is important. The constitutional application of standards is separated into two divisions based upon the individuals’ status. The 8th amendment applies to convicts and the 5th / 14th applies to the detainee.

    There are two additional words used to describe the residents of a correctional institution: offender, prisoner. Also, a ‘conjuntive’ term inmate-patient or patient-inmate [the first word tending to indicate the users bias] may be used.

    While health care staff should provide care to incarcerated individuals without regard to their status (pretrial, convicted) or the associated crime [though substance use related activity may be important]. It is important to remember that these individuals are not incarcerated for ‘skipping Sunday School’.

  6. Pingback: English News Today “The wrongfully incarcerated in US prisons” VIDEO | My Blog InCaseofInnocence

  7. Well of course in the medical business they would be called patients. I mean like commen sense. Any person needing to be seen medically would without a doubt be referred to as a patient. I feel as though that shouldn’t have even been stressed. But here where I work we house adults and the facility is a detention center and we as well refer to them as inmates. Me I honestly think it’s appropriate. Who wants to be called a convict or whatever else they use. I feel as though the word inmate works quiet well, because I feel as though everything else is rude, and just because they are incarcerated doesn’t mean we have to call them just anything. Just my opinion.

  8. I too have often wondered often about Jail or Gaol history,where did the term inmate and trustee come from. I wonder if we should be using different terms and different practices why should we label these individuals at all. I’ve been digging into the history of incarceration and laws for years and we don’t seem to be getting it right…it seems we haven’t learned our history. We need take a long hard look at everything we do in Jails…good article Thanks

  9. Fascinating post! In England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland each have a separate prison system with somewhat different terminology), we call them detainees if they are 1) in custody, 2) pre-trial detention (‘remand’), 3) otherwise detained e.g. immigration or counter-terrorism related, 4) detained without the prospect of a trial, as it may occur in some scenarios involving public order, where detention serves to make sure they don’t make trouble. They become offenders upon being sentenced (but notably, someone who is required to sign the sex offenders’ register becomes an offender first, then a sex offender when s/he signs the register) and prisoners upon being transferred to the custody of HM Prisons (detainees are typically detained in police stations or detention centres). Oddly, a person who is incarcerated in a prison may be rearrested if the police want to charge him with a new offence and want to interview him in relation to that – in which case he will be a prisoner, an offender and a detainee at the same time!

  10. As a French speaker watching Prison Break in the original version, this was a very interesting article and the only one I found to explain where ‘inmate’ comes from.

    There’s no equivalent in French and possibly other Latin languages. We just call them prisoners (used more by people) or detained (used more by medias). We might sometimes say ‘pensionnaire’, as some kind of joke . It has a meaning close of boarder and resident but with some irony because inmates don’t pay any rent (at least when serving their times).

    • Thank you Seif! I personally have never heard the word “prisoner” used in relation to incarcerated inmates, even though it seems it would fit. Besides “inmate,” the other word that tends to be used is “Offender.”

  11. The Wisconsin DOC is currently using “Persons In Our Care”, or PIOCS. Very cumbersome, in my opinion.
    Personally I prefer “residents” because it is neutral. In the prisons they are called inmates or offenders, as the official appellation hasn’t trickled down yet, if it ever will.

  12. Inmates or convicts.That’s it.For 30 years,that’s what I called them.Never had a problem.The State of New York just changed it to incarcerated.The Governor here is a fool and soft on crime.So she wants to make the convicts happy.Come to New York and be robbed or violently beaten or worse.The Governor doesn’t care.She makes laws that benefit criminals.

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