Carlos Riley Trial Pic

Carlos Riley Found Not Guilty of Assault

Durham, N.C.  A jury today found Carlos Riley, Jr. not guilty of assault on a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon, two counts of assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer, assault on a law enforcement officer inflicting serious injury, and robbery with a dangerous weapon.  He was found guilty of common law robbery for taking the officer’s handgun from the scene.  SCSJ’s Ian Mance analyzed the officer’s stop and search history, which demonstrated that the officer had a highly-racialized enforcement history and regularly conducted off-the-books traffic stops. That information was used during Alex Charns’ cross-examination to attack the officer’s credibility.

Umar Muhammad, SCSJ’s Community Organizer, attended court in support of the family and community members as often as possible.  SCSJ’s David Hall made an appearance in the Carlos Riley case to make a motion to have Mr. Riley’s car returned.

Shortly before the verdict was read, the judge allowed Carlos’ younger sister Destini to screen her 15 minute documentary film, “I, Destini” in the courtroom for her brother. The film premiered at Hayti Heritage Center last week and is about the impact of Carlos’ incarceration on her family.  Here is her September 2013 statement to the Durham City Council about the case:


SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson on the PBS NewsHour discussing “Ban the Box”

SCSJ Senior Attorney for Criminal Justice Daryl Atkinson appeared on the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 and discussed “Ban the Box” hiring reform with NewsHour Senior Correspondent William Brangham and senior executive counsel for the National Federation for American Business Elizabeth Milito.

From its earliest days as a refuge for colonial settlers seeking a fresh start in a new world to its years as the land of opportunity for immigrants dreaming of new beginnings, America’s story has always been one of second chances. A promise to begin anew to make a better life is both inherent to America’s character and deeply embedded in its value system.

However, the nation has not embraced the ideal of second chances for people convicted of crimes.  Over the last 30 years America has experienced an explosion in the number of people who have come into contact with the criminal legal system: nearly 1.6 million people are currently in prison, 4 million are on probation, and 70 million have a criminal record. For many job applicants throughout the country, one question blocks them from gainful employment and economic opportunity: a single question, often posed as a checkbox on the front of most job applications, which asks about an applicant’s criminal history. For many employers, it has become a way to weed out applicants before ever considering qualifications such as education and job history. This practice is widespread, and its negative effects on job applicants and their communities are staggering.

Rather than let this pernicious barrier to opportunity stand, a movement to “Ban the Box”-to remove this checkbox from applications- has risen to disassemble such structural discrimination facing people with criminal records. The “Ban the Box” movement was birthed in the Bay Area by a group of formerly incarcerated people named “All of Us or None”.  To date, 17 states across the country and more than 100 cities and counties have passed laws to remove this barrier, to great advantage. Atkinson described the successful passage of “Ban the Box” legislation in both the County and City of Durham, North Carolina in 2011 and 2012:

“I believe that millions of people who cycle in and out of our criminal justice system can be successful as well if they have the necessary support…We have seen the percentage of people hired who have criminal records go up every year without any increases in workplace theft or crime. None of these folks have been subsequently terminated because they committed a subsequent offense.”

Durham’s success is hardly a flash in the pan; the gains it has reaped since banning the box are consistent with those in recent findings evaluating the larger impact of Ban the Box hiring reform.

Today, Americans are taking increasing notice of the injustices inherent to the country’s system of mass criminalization as well as the collateral consequences that individuals-disproportionately people of color-suffer as a result of their contact with the criminal legal system. More and more, they recognize how discriminatory hiring practices facing formerly incarcerated people betray America’s promise and are thus taking action to ensure that people with convictions have a fair chance to work. In recent months, elected officials and business leaders have joined religious, labor, and civil rights groups in supporting the national civil and human rights coalition comprised of formerly incarcerated people that launched and currently leads the nation-wide “Ban the Box” campaign.

Watch the full segment and view a transcript of the NewsHour segment here:


This post was written by SCSJ Researcher Sarah Moncelle



SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson a finalist for David Carliner Public Interest Award

Southern Coalition for Social Justice Senior Staff Attorney for Criminal Justice Daryl Atkinson was recognized as a finalist for the American Constitution Society’s (ACS) David Carliner Public Interest Award at the 2015 ACS National Convention in Washington D.C. on Thursday, June 11.

The award is given annually to a mid-career public interest lawyer and honors an attorney whose work best exemplifies David Carliner’s legacy of fearless, uncompromising and creative advocacy on behalf of marginalized people. Carliner, who began as an activist organizing against poll taxes, militarism and white supremacy in 1930s and 40s Virginia, became a pioneering immigration attorney who served as the founding chair of the American Civil Liberties Union–National Capital Area and Global Rights.

Atkinson was named a finalist for his advocacy efforts on behalf of formerly incarcerated people.



WASHINGTON - JULY 07: A man holds a sign against racial profiling during a protest with Community and faith leaders from Arizona in front of the White House on July 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. Activists plan a 24-hour vigil outside the White House to protest the imminent new immigration law in Arizona.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Orange County group sends police chiefs, sheriff advice for fighting police bias

This story was written by Tammy Grubb and was first published in The News & Observer on May 26, 2015.

A coalition of attorneys, citizens and community advocates is asking Orange County law enforcement to weed out any racial bias in their departments.

The Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition recommended 11 steps, including periodic review of stop, search and arrest data; dashboard and body cameras for officers; mandatory use of written consent-to-search forms; and the treatment of marijuana possession as a low-priority crime.

The coalition has given Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police, along with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, until July 3 to respond.

While bias may start with the officer on the street, it’s important to understand that it’s not just a policing issue, said Orange County public defender James Williams Jr., a member of the coalition.

“The whole system needs to be involved in efforts to address (bias),” he said. “If we only look at the police, then I think we will never get this right.”

The coalition’s report noted key findings of a statewide police bias study released in December. The study found the Chapel Hill Police Department made 65,460 stops and 2,427 searches between 2002 and 2013. The Carrboro Police Department made 30,528 stops and 2,010 searches in that time.

Black drivers accounted for 24 percent of Chapel Hill stops and 22 percent of Carrboro stops, the study found, while the black population in each town was roughly 10 percent. Rural Orange County stops involved black drivers 26 percent of the time, it found, while the black population was 12 percent.

Roughly 12 percent of black drivers who were stopped in Carrboro had their cars searched, compared to 5 percent of white drivers, the data show. In Chapel Hill, 6 percent of black drivers stopped had their cars searched, compared to 3 percent of white drivers.

Nearly 9 percent of black drivers stopped in rural Orange County had their cars searched, compared to 5 percent of white drivers. The county’s racial disparity between Hispanic and white drivers whose cars were searched was much larger – 21 percent vs. 5 percent – the coalition reported.

The race-based differences in motorist treatment are not unique to Orange County, coalition members said, pointing to Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other places having a similar discussion.

“Justice must start at home,” said Frank Baumgartner, a UNC political science professor involved in the study. “We are calling on our local community leaders to show leadership by looking seriously into these issues and working with community groups to enact meaningful reforms.”

Spotlight on Durham

The city of Durham considered the UNC findings in depth earlier this year as it reflected on bias in the Durham Police Department. The city had sought reviews before by local boards and the U.S. Justice Department’s Diagnostic Center.

Durham now has more than three dozen changes in place or being considered, such as requiring officers to get written permission before searching a car during a traffic stop. The policy doesn’t affect searches carried out with a warrant or when an officer has probable cause to search.

The department also hired a public affairs manager to reach out to the community and completes periodic reviews of police stop, search and arrest data. Police officials have been holding public forums more recently to talk about plans for equipping officers with body cameras.

More to the story

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood joined an NAACP-sponsored panel discussion of policing bias in January.

Carrboro hasn’t had a racial bias or profiling problem, Horton said. If a complaint were filed, the officer accused of violating department policies would be investigated right away, he said, and, if found responsible, be reprimanded or retrained.

“We’re such a small department that if we had an issue, the supervisor would pick up on it pretty quickly,” he said.

Horton also took issue with using population data to compare stops and searches by race. Local residents are very transient, he said, and a majority of Carrboro stops and searches involve drivers from other counties.

The department is trying to compare the study data to its own records, he said, but lacks the staff and skills to do much of what’s requested. Southern Coalition for Social Justice data experts recently showed Carrboro police staff how to access and analyze traffic stop data, the coalition reported.

Chapel Hill started quarterly reviews of each officer’s traffic stops in 2012 as a way to identify any irregularities or patterns. The information collected is compared to local data about race and other demographics, Chief Chris Blue has said, and sometimes to other officers’ reports.

“Personally, I think it is healthy for organizations to build systems that require periodic reviews of all processes, particularly those involving the potential for bias, whether intentional or not,” Blue is quoted as saying in the UNC School of Government’s Indigent Defense Manual Series.

Blue declined to address the coalition’s requests at this time but has said before he understands the community’s frustration. He also agreed previously that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, noting that police sometimes target an area in response to citizen requests.

“Just saying (bias) doesn’t exist doesn’t make it disappear,” Mayor Mark Kleinschdmit said. Chapel Hill police are open to talking about issues and solutions, he said, because the changes underway and being considered will require the community’s support to be successful.

Blackwood said he would respond to the coalition’s requests by the July deadline. The group is free to make his response public at that time, he said, declining to comment further.

Deputies searched the cars of 23 black drivers and 20 white drivers last year, Blackwood said at the January event. It’s common to stop a driver, regardless of race, because they or their cars haven’t been seen in the area before, he said, but deputies do not profile drivers by race.

“We have black officers who are stopping black drivers, and if you asked them (why) it’s because they had a (motor-vehicle violation),” Blackwood said then. “The implication is that we’re stopping black drivers (deliberately), and I just disagree with that.”

While the number of searches may be low, the coalition said, the number appears different when you consider the county’s racial makeup. It’s not the number of traffic stops, Williams said, but what law enforcement is doing in an effort to find contraband.

“Instead of race being used as a descriptor, it’s being used as a predictor” of criminal activity, he said.

Training, changes happening

All local agencies require officers to receive annual diversity and other training. Some officers also attended a recent regional workshop with Lorie Fridell, of the Fair and Impartial Policing group. The “train the trainer” event taught them how to teach bias-free policing techniques to their peers.

Blackwood has emphasized training and resolving bias concerns since being elected last year, Orange County Commissioners Chairman Earl McKee said. The commissioners work closely with the sheriff but do not have a supervisory role, he said.

“The board is concerned that every person in Orange County … receives fair, responsive and responsible treatment when dealing with law enforcement,” McKee said. “I think we’re striving to get better.”

The sheriff’s office already requires deputies to get written consent for searches when there’s no evidence of a crime, Blackwood said at the forum. Chapel Hill and Carrboro are considering the possibility.

Written consent is a good idea, said Kleinschmidt, who is also an attorney. He noted concern about and changes this year in the federal civil forfeiture program, which let officers seize cash and property from individuals without proving a crime has occurred.

Another growing trend is outfitting officers with cameras.

Most Orange County police and sheriff’s vehicles are equipped with cameras. Hillsborough bought body cameras last year for some of its officers, and Chapel Hill is considering the possibility now.

Carrboro’s latest capital projects budget includes $91,000 to buy 42 cameras, enough for each officer and a few replacements. At least 14 cameras will be purchased during the first round, Horton said, expanding eventually to about 35 patrol cars. He has been meeting with Alderman Damon Seils and the ACLU to work out the details, he said.

Marijuana crimes

The coalition also asked local law enforcement to reduce the emphasis on marijuana crimes.

Roughly 47 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in Chapel Hill are black, the coalition reports, and about 44 percent in Carrboro. The number of black people arrested for marijuana possession in rural Orange County was 27 percent.

That’s a concern, coalition members said, because many involve young people, and in North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults. A low-level marijuana arrest can become part of a young person’s permanent record, affecting their ability to attend college or get a job.

Carrboro officers can use discretion when they find a small amount of marijuana, Horton, said, but someone with the drug bagged for sale would be arrested. He suggested groups opposed to marijuana laws contact legislators.

“The law is the law. We are sworn to enforce it,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746


The Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition is asking local law enforcement agencies to adopt 11 proposed solutions to racial bias and profiling:

▪ Identify and change existing policies that result in racially biased policing

▪ Adopt written policies explicitly prohibiting racial profiling

▪ Periodically review officers’ stop, search and arrest data

▪ Require officers to use written consent-to-search forms

▪ Prohibit vehicle stops and searches based solely on a driver’s “nervousness,” “presence in a high crime neighborhood” or “criminal record”

▪ Require dashboard cameras in police cars and body cameras for officers

▪ Make marijuana a low priority

▪ Mandate quarterly race reports to town or county leaders

▪ Mandate racial equity training for all officers

▪ Adopt measures to increase public confidence in how agencies respond to allegations of police misconduct

▪ Increase civilian involvement in law enforcement decisions


‘Second Chance’ laws sought

— Advocates for people with criminal records are calling for changes to state laws they say make it nearly impossible for former convicts to become productive members of society once they’ve finished their sentences.

In the weeks leading up to crossover, state lawmakers moved a series of bills that would make small changes to expunction laws and facilitate re-entry. But two of the biggest proposals didn’t get hearings at all.

One, House Bill 399, would raise the age for some adult crimes from 16 to 18 years old. It is not subject to crossover because it appropriates money. It has bipartisan support. The other, House Bill 612, known as “Ban the Box,” would have directed state and local governments to stop using a job application question about an applicant’s criminal record as an automatic disqualification for further consideration. It did not have bipartisan support, and it did not survive the crossover deadline.

Still, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that they intend to continue the fight to help make it easier for people with criminal records to find employment.

“These are people with unfavorable backgrounds who need another chance, who need an opportunity to get back into their communities,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, the sponsor of “Ban the Box.” “We do believe in a second chance because all of us, if truth be told, have had some second chances in life.”

Former prosecutor Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, stressed that he believes in consequences for crimes, adding, “it’s possible to go too far, it’s possible to destroy people’s lives for no good reason.”

“It used to be that the worst part of being convicted of a minor criminal offense was you’d have to spend a few days in jail. Now, that’s dwarfed by the long-term financial consequences that keep people from being able to provide for themselves,” Jackson said. “Look at the economic cage we’ve locked them into. Ask yourself if there isn’t a more reasonable approach.”

In 2011, Durham became the first city in North Carolina to “ban the box” on job applications. Daryl Atkinson, senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

In 2011, 2.3 percent of hires in Durham city government were people with past criminal records. In 2012, it was 4.4 percent, rising to 9 percent in 2013 and 15 percent in 2014.

“The sky didn’t open up and rain down plagues,” Atkinson said, adding that the city has seen “no increases in workplace crime, and none of those folks have been terminated because they’ve committed an offense.”

Atkinson stressed that not every job is appropriate for someone with a felony record, but he said in many instances employers are using a criminal record of any kind as a blanket disqualifier for any job.

“They’re not making that individual assessment to see if there’s a direct relationship between the underlying record and the job,” he said, noting that Koch Industries recently banned the box on applications for all its subsidiaries and calling it “the moral thing to do.”

About 1.6 million North Carolinians – roughly one out of six – have criminal records. Across the country, some 700,000 inmates will be released from prisons every year for the next 10 years, a higher number than ever before.

“When we think about the turmoil that’s going on around the country, one of the common denominators is communities feeling shut out of opportunity,” Atkinson said.

Re-entry advocate Dennis Gaddy agreed.

“If you make it hard to do the right thing, you make it easy to do the wrong thing,” Gaddy said.

This story was written by Laura Leslie and was published to’s NCCapitol blog on Tuesday, May 5, 2015 


SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson discusses “On the Run” on HuffPost Live

Senior Attorney Daryl Atkinson joined host Marc Lamont Hill and University of Wisconsin Sociologist Alice Goffman in a HuffPost Live discussion of Goffman’s book, “On the Run.”

Much of “On the Run” focuses on the book’s main subjects, black men in their 20s living in a Philadelphia neighborhood who find ways to evade, dodge and run from police in order to avoid arrest, prison time for small crimes. Beyond running from the police, the subjects of Hoffman’s book communicate the reality that they aren’t able to rely on law enforcement or the court systems to help them when they need it. Atkinson discussed their perspective, and offered several alternatives to the vicious cycle of criminalizing, incarcerating, and reducing opportunity that disproportionately affects black men in the United States.

“When we talk about our country, our enabling documents talk about the ability to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Overcriminalization really cuts against the fabric of some of the deepest values of our country.”

Atkinson promoted policy-based solutions that exist today:

  • Move a number of low-level moving infractions and livability offenses out of the criminal justice system and into a civil penalty system that will not hold people in financial bondage.
  • Use the criminal justice system only to the measure that is necessary so that people are not incarcerated longer than is necessary. Base judgement of such necessity on evidence from applied and data-driven social science research.
  • Remove the second class status that is attendant to contact with the criminal justice system

Culture-shift solutions are just as needed for comprehensive criminal justice reform: We have to enlarge the “We”

“All of the fights that we’ve been engaged in in this country have really been about more clearly defining who “We the People” are. We need to enlarge that “We” to truly include poor people, black and brown people, and people who are currently living on the margins of society.”

You may view the segment in its entirety below.

Policing and Prisons Threaten Black Men in the U.S.

The Marshall Project

Words matter: the importance of humanizing criminal justice vocabulary

Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

What to call incarcerated people: Your feedback

We received more than 200 responses to our callout asking the best way to refer to people behind bars. Of the options we offered, 38 percent preferred “incarcerated person,” 23 percent liked “prisoner” and nearly 10 percent supported use of the word inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”)

Here is a sample of the responses (some of which have been edited for length or clarity).


I don’t like the term – I was one once – but at least this term is localized to the actual incarceration event and allows someone to move past it once they are released…. – Robert Pelshaw

“Inmate” is concise and accurate without being pejorative…Arguably, “inmate” is more versatile than “prisoner,” because it includes people who are confined to institutions other than prisons, such as psychiatric hospitals, and immigration detention centers. –Lindsay Beyerstein

Nomenclatures are important and exist to clarify the world around us…my preference is to keep the terms simple while simultaneously remembering that there is a human being on the flip side of that word. – Trish Navaratnasingam

Just as you might refer to someone by their occupation, “an attorney, a writer, a teacher”, while a person is in prison, they are “an inmate”….I am a retired state prison warden, and “inmate” is the term staff and inmates used. – Sherry Davison

For me the word inmate is not synonymous with criminality…Inmate suggests people confined within a dwelling, and for me, nothing more than that…For perspective: I worked at Reeves County Detention Center III as a correctional officer from 2006-2008. – Ashley Moya

As a journalist and convicted felon, I think a lot about the power that language has to redeem or condemn. Like a lot of reporters, I try to be thoughtful about the way I describe people, especially when I’m writing about marginalized groups. But on a personal level, I don’t care much about whether someone labels me a felon, ex-con, or formerly incarcerated person — whatever…If someone asks, I get right down to it: “I was convicted of a felony. I sat a year in jail for a burglary.” See? When facts are stated frankly, labels have much less power…I appreciate being thoughtful about the labels we apply. But the question here seems more of a concern for the advocates or social worker — less so for the convicted felon looking forward to having his civil rights restored. – Mario Koran

Incarcerated person

As a formerly incarcerated person, the term inmate feels disparaging. We were often called this by officers with a tone of disgust. I think it’s important to use the term incarcerated person, however clunky, because it is so easy to forget that we are talking about people when we use words like inmate or prisoner. – Jacqueline Conn

I have had both experiences as a criminal defense attorney and an incarcerated woman. Prior to my incarceration, in the role as a defense attorney, I recognized the immediate devaluing of a person as a human being as soon as they encountered any aspect of the criminal justice system…While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as “the inmates”. It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage… – Andrea James

Mass criminalization has pushed us to the point where one out of every three adults in the US have a criminal history record (arrest or conviction for a felony or a misdemeanor). That is an awful lot of people to simply relegate to their criminal justice status. They are first and foremost people. – Alan Rosenthal

As a public defender I know that many of the folks who are incarcerated aren’t guilty, aren’t criminals. I don’t like the label. Because they are more than that, they are people, someone’s people, my people. – Chantá Parker

It would be ridiculous to label each of us based on the worst moments of our lives. It’s equally ridiculous, and cruel, to make people forever bear labels that define them first and foremost as their crime. – Katherine Katcher, Founder & Executive Director, Root & Rebound: Reentry Advocates Berkeley, CA

The criminal justice system is meant to–or purports to–keep our society safe. If that is truly our objective, we should do everything within our power to ensure that it works towards those aims without creating (or perpetuating) a permanent class divide. Inmate, felon, and prisoner are just the latest epithets in a long and ugly history. – Jonathan Stenger

When I worked as summer law clerk at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on a team prosecuting 7 men ultimately convicted for the mass killing of over 3000 Muslim men and boys, we were asked to research what enabled the generals to get soldiers to carry out a slaughter such as this…Turned out, one of the most important steps was to rename the victims in the months (even years) preceding the mass murder. To get society in the habit of calling the group you’d like destroyed anything other than people is step one. It is a tactic of war and a tactic used to support genocidal acts. That is why, respectfully, I’m casting a strong vote in favor of “incarcerated person” and making an appeal that The Marshall Project and others steer clear of the dangerous words that dehumanize and make people invisible and dispensable. – Gina Clayton

Because I am not a status, I am a person and a human being. The labels are usually being used to my disadvantage and dehumanize me. It makes torturing and killing me much easier to do. Just think the next time you see one of us laying dead in the middle of the street and see how easily our deaths are excused by status, label, and history. I believe the current language makes the practice of racism and supremacy appear to be neutral. – Dorsey Nunn

When describing someone who is currently serving time in prison, we at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights believe that “incarcerated person” is the best term, but only insofar as the discussion is actually related to their incarceration. One of the problems with our criminal justice system is the pervasive belief that people serving time are no longer a part of our communities. Dehumanizing language like “convict,” “inmate,” “felon,” or “prisoner” only serve to reinforce the belief that such a division exists, which can lead to stripping people in prison of their fundamental human rights, like the right to vote, to have healthcare, and to see their families. – Zachary Norris

Formerly incarcerated people taught me about how such language is preferable even to “prisoner,” which is what I’d been taught to use in my prior advocacy work in the 1990s / early 2000s as an alternative to “inmate.”…The state intentionally creates systems to dehumanize the people whom it imprisons as a strategy to make it easier to abuse power and exert control over people. The public is less likely to become outraged about human rights abuses against people in jails, prisons, detention centers, juvenile facilities, etc., if the people they are abusing are not seen as people (or as brothers, sisters, siblings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins), but rather as inmates, detainees, felons, sex offenders, rapists, addicts, etc. etc. – Andrea Bible

The problem is not just that this language is dehumanizing, as Eddie Ellis and so many others who have been called these words so persuasively insist. It is also that this language is inaccurate because it is incomplete: the elements about a person’s identity that it excludes are entirely relevant to our understanding and decision-making about what to do when that person has broken the law or causes harm…What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime—incarcerated *people*, *people* with felony convictions, *people* on parole, even *people* who have caused great harm and should be held meaningfully accountable. Any truly effective policy solutions will make central the humanity of everyone directly impacted by crime—including those who commit it. It is true, as you put it on your website, that “storytelling can be a powerful agent of social change.” The scale of change that is called for in this arena is significant enough that it not only demands new content, but new words. It is time to start talking about people. When we do, our language will reflect the humanity of those we describe, and we, too, will be humanized in the process. –Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice, Vera institute of Justice


Convict is too archaic, while “inmate” is a term once used for mental patients in asylums (and is often considered a derogatory term among prisoners). The correct term for people in jail who have not been convicted is “pre-trial detainee.” “Formerly incarcerated person” is just getting too PC and putting form before substance. As a former prisoner myself, I don’t want to be known as a “FIP.” –Alex Friedmann, Prison Legal News

Inmate implies mental infirmity such as an inmate in a mental hospital. The person is being held in a prison and is therefore a prisoner regardless of how or why they are there. As a former prisoner myself, sentenced to 25 years for smuggling marijuana, I bridled at being called an inmate. – Richard Stratton

I want to recognize that the organization I work for, Black and Pink, has been conducting a survey of LGBTQ prisoners across the country [that asks this question directly], and of the nearly 1,000 respondents, there is no agreement. We offered the options of inmate, prisoner, incarcerated person, person who is incarcerated, and other. “Other” had the largest percent, with most respondents saying they simply want to be referred to by their name. The issue of language is essential, but it’s important to be clear what purpose the user of the language has. I find the term “inmate” to be intentionally depoliticizing the reality of incarceration. When Black and Pink releases a final report, we will use the term prisoner in our writing, recognizing that there is not a universal agreement amongst our membership about terminology. – Jason Lydon

I’m a law student immersed in criminal defense. I’m also a prior defendant in a federal case with decades of punitive exposure, a veteran with four combat tours, and I have an MFA in Creative Writing, so I know the value of individual words….I propose that it’s best to use words that describe what the vast majority of American inmates really are: Prisoners of War. They’re prisoners of war in a racist and classist War on Drugs. They’re prisoners of war in war against poverty, but instead of trying to raise them up out of poverty, our society just wants to throw them out of sight. – Matthew Hefti

As someone who was a prisoner myself, “Prisoner” is the most accurate term for someone in prison…One anecdote about this: I was once disciplined fairly harshly in a California women’s prison for referring to myself as a prisoner while speaking to an officer. In our conversation, the guard interrupted me and told me I was a female inmate, and not a prisoner. He said that referring to myself as a prisoner was against rules and furthermore subversive to the order of the facility. – Kathleen Culhane


As a probation officer, they are initially defendants and eventually clients…They are receiving a service from me, the same as if they were applying for a loan at a bank. Past action is not always indicative a future action and a label should not precede the person. – Josh Gunselman

Person in prison…I have spent years working for and side-by-side with people who are in prison or who have been released from prison. I have witnessed over and over these individuals – who are my clients, my colleagues, and my friends – physically wince when others refer to them as “prisoner,” “felon,” “offender” or “criminal.” It is a sad commentary on our society that people lose their status as people – as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, employees, friends, colleagues, etc., – because they have committed a crime and been caught. Yet people who have committed a crime and not been caught – and let’s face it, this is the vast majority of all people – do not similarly lose their humanity. How can this be justified? Indeed, how can it be justified in the face of the reality that people of color tend to be caught more than their white counterparts? – Patricia Warth

Man or woman or person who is incarcerated…Let’s stop using correctional language designed to denigrate and dehumanize. If we want to make sentencing less extreme and conditions of confinement less brutal, we need to keep each of the people suffering the cruelty of system up front. Words are important. – Lois Ahrens

Man, woman or person in prison…I teach at a prison and insist that my students not use the term “offender,” which is what the prison system calls them and they, for too long, have called themselves. I tell them it would be like referring to someone as “liar” because they lied years ago. As for prison officers (and I was one), I find “guard” derogatory, and better describes something you do with inanimate objects. “Correctional officer” conveys a fanciful, and to my mind unseemly, relationship btw keeper and kept. “Prison officer” simply denotes an individual granted official authority within the specific domain of a penal institution. – Kelsey Kauffman

I work with juvenile offenders and I always insist on asking them what they prefer to be called, which is usually their first name. The security staff only ever call the kids by their last name. I’ve always felt that it’s too militaristic and it allows staff to forget that they aren’t dealing with adults. – Nancy Acevedo

Uttering their name without disdain will actually be music to their ears. Their path took a wrong turn. They are there to be corrected. Not punished! I was a cop for twenty years. – Kumar Prem

When you examine the history of this country whenever America wanted to oppress or dominate a particular group of people they first began with the language they used to describe that particular group of people. When America wanted to justify taking indigenous people’s land we described them as “savages”. When America wanted to justify the chattel slavery of African people we called them “jiggabo”, “monkey” or “nigger” terms that debased their humanity. The list goes on and on. Lastly, I respectfully disagree with your argument that pejorative labels like “ex-convict” are accurate descriptors of people who have been to prison. The analysis is similar to one put forth by undocumented advocates when they began the “I” campaign. Labels like “ex-convict” describe conduct that I engaged in which may have violated a law but they do not describe the full breadth of my humanity. So in 1996 I was convicted of drug trafficking. Since that time I have attained my Associates, Bachelors, and Juris Doctor degrees. I’m licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina. I have been honored at the White House. I’m a Deacon in my church. I’m a husband, a father, and a valued member of my community. It’s unfortunate and a disservice to the full breadth of my humanity to solely defined me by my contact with the criminal legal system. I’m more than the sum total of my contact with the criminal legal system. When the Marshall Project began I got the impression that you all wanted to report on issues related to criminal legal reform in a different way, to hopefully spur change and reform. Changing the language you all use to refer to people entangled in the criminal legal system will make you a leader in the media and further the progression of this movement. Thank you for the opportunity to give my perspective. – Daryl Atkinson

This story was originally filed on April 3, 2015 at


“Ban The Box” Advocates Call For Executive Order At White House

Criminal justice reform advocates are meeting with top White House advisers on Wednesday to help people who’ve done their time, Politico reports. They’re urging President Barack Obama to issue an executive order banning the government and federal contractors from asking most prospective employees questions about criminal records. The demand is commonly known as “ban the box,” which refers to the section of job applications where employers inquire about arrests and convictions.

“People shouldn’t be penalized for their whole life for indiscretions they have made,” a member of the activist delegation told Politico.

Some 70 million Americans have criminal backgrounds that make it harder for them to find work,according to the National Employment Law Project, which supports “ban the box” measures. People of color, who make up 60 percent of the prison population, are disproportionately impacted by criminal background inquiries, advocates point out. They also say that background checks run counter to the justice system’s goal of rehabilitation.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have passed “ban the box” laws. Last month, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who is Republican, signed an executive order to that effect.

Major labor, religious and civil rights groups support a similar order aimed at the federal government and its contractors. A letter calling on the White House to issue the order was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, the the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Presbyterian Church, among other prominent groups.

Some have raised concerns about lifting criminal background inquiries for all federal jobs. But even “ban the box” advocates acknowledge it might make sense for some agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, to be exempted from an eventual order.

In 2013, the Department of Labor issued a warning that federal contractors who exclude job applicants based on criminal records risk violating anti-discrimination laws. However, the agency has yet to explicitly prevent such employers from engaging in the practice.

This post was written by Cole Stangler and appeared in the International Business Times on MArch 25, 2015.


“Ban the Box” campaign gains momentum in Washington

This story was written by Josh Gerstein and appeared on on March 25, 2015  

Obama urged to ease hiring of ex-prisoners

A group of criminal justice reformers, including some who served prison time, are headed to the White House Wednesday to press President Barack Obama to do more to help those who’ve been convicted of crimes find jobs, housing and other necessities once they get out.

The delegation is urging Obama to issue an executive order that would ban the federal government and government contractors from asking most job applicants about their criminal histories. The idea, labeled “Ban the Box,” has already been enacted in some form in 14 states and more than 100 localities.

“The trip to the White House for me is really meaningful,” said Dorsey Nunn, who now runs the San Francisco-based charity Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and went to prison in 1971 — at the age of 19 — in connection with a liquor store robbery in which the store’s owner was killed.

“I had to sit down and wrap my head around the fact that I had walked through both the gates of San Quentin and the gates of the White House compound,” Nunn said in an interview, referring to a visit he paid to the White House for another event last year.

The “Ban the Box” campaigners are set to meet Wednesday with the White House Director of Urban Affairs Roy Austin, as well as others from the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council, before going to the Labor Department for another meeting.

Former prisoners say the challenges of getting a job and a place to live after doing time are among the leading factors that push former inmates to commit new crimes and society to incur additional costs to lock them up again.

“Look, it’s not rocket science,” said Daryl Atkinson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “If folks can’t participate in the legal economy, that pushes them back to the illegal economy.”

Atkinson, who’s scheduled to attend the White House session Wednesday, spent 40 months in prison in North Carolina for drug trafficking in the 1990s before attending college and law school. He noted that about one in four American adults have faced charge or conviction in the criminal justice system and can encounter hiring problems as a result.

“This affects between 65 and 71 million Americans. If we want to make sure those folks have the opportunity to contribute to the economy and become taxpayers and productive members of society, this is a necessary policy initiative,” Atkinson said.

The campaigners say they’ve gotten a “very open” reception from other administration officials, such as a “re-entry” council Attorney General Eric Holder set up in 2011 to address problems integrating former prisoners into society.

Removing or delaying questions about criminal records in the federal hiring process raises obvious questions, like what to do about the tens of thousands of jobs that are security-related or require background checks. The Obama administration has pressed in court to preserve the government’s ability to demand such checks even for low-level positions, like store and data-entry clerks.

Atkinson said the fact that people with a criminal history might not be suitable for some government or contractor jobs doesn’t mean all of them should be off limits.“I can imagine in the FBI’s case, its positions, or Homeland Security, they’d be exempted out. That’s reasonable, but that’s the exception rather than the rule as far as the vast number of federal jobs associated with the federal government,” he said.

A White House spokesman declined to discuss the meeting or the administration’s stance on the “Ban the Box” idea, which was fought in California by the district attorneys’ association.

In 2013, the Obama administration warned federal contractors that bans on hiring those with criminal records could run afoul of discrimination laws because of the disproportionate rate at which minorities are incarcerated. However, the memo didn’t explicitly prohibit contractors from taking such issues into account.

As Obama’s presidency winds down, criminal justice reform has emerged as an issue of greater focus for him. It’s also garnering attention from Republican governors and from conservatives like mining barons Charles and David Koch. Former Obama White House aide Van Jones and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are holding a summit meeting in Washington Thursday, aimed at cutting prison populations by 50 percent.

The effort to focus on rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners got a boost this week from two very prominent figures in the judicial system: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.

“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions, functions, that we have in our entire government,” Kennedy said at a House budget hearing Monday. “Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. And once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections….This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. And it’s not humane.”

“I think it is a big problem for the country,” Breyer added.

In connection with the White House meeting, more than 100 labor, civil liberties and religious groups sent a letter to Obama Wednesday urging him to take executive action to require what the advocates call “fair chance hiring.”

Another campaigner headed to the White House session, Pastor Mike McBride of the faith-based group PICO Network, said he believes the bipartisan drive will make it easier for Obama and his aides to see a move on the ex-prisoner employement issue as a part of his legacy.

“I believe we’re creating a kind of crescendo and climate where the idea we’re verbalizing will be an easy, softball pitch for them,” McBride said. “People shouldn’t be penalized for their whole life for indiscretions they have made.”


Selma 2015: Banner

Selma march feels like ‘hope and justice magnified’

Susan Burton of A New Way of Life in Los Angeles and Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice finally got their turn to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge — twice.

Burton’s dispatch:

There are just thousands and thousands and thousands of people, as far as the eye can see, people lined up coming across that bridge.

We marched backward across it the first time, signifying the rights that have been lost, the injustice of the criminal justice system. Voting rights. The fact that I can’t serve on a jury, despite the fact that I’m 20 years from ever having been incarcerated.

When we reached the other side of the bridge, we turned around to march in unity with everyone else. It felt so powerful. I felt like there was a uniting of all the energy, the collective mass of individuals. It felt like we were a body, we were a power, we were a force.

There were people in wheelchairs. There was a guy who was there on the first march, he was walking up on a walker.

I’m on my way to the airport now, and people are still coming across that bridge! Oh, my goodness. It felt like hope magnified. Hope and justice magnified.

–Susan Burton
Selma 2015

This coverage of the 2015 Selma march was written by Susan Burton and first appeared in the L.A. Times on Sunday, March 9, 2015. Photo Credits: L.A. Times