America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with one in one hundred people in prison. When in jail, prisoners aren’t considered people: they’re considered criminals. Lindsey Feldman in her article “Hot felons: Branding Jeremy Meeks” asserts that “to call someone a felon or a criminal is to engage in the process of social categorization, or rather, social cauterization. It is an act of moral branding.” It dehumanizes the people in prison and feeds into an “us-and-them” mentality.
Accordingly, upon leaving prison, these people are hounded by their new label. I have never been in prison, nor have I ever become close with someone who has, so I’m speaking purely from a logistical standpoint. Every application I have seen, whether for jobs, healthcare, or education, asks whether or not the applicant has committed a felony. I agree wholeheartedly in that it is necessary for people who have committed crimes to be punished for them, and if their crime is heinous enough to warrant lifelong exile they are kept in prison. As most crimes do not warrant such actions, criminals are understandably let free after their sentence—only to become trapped in social, in lieu of physical, exile.
Feldman mentions that in her work others have questioned why she is sympathetic to these people, and is reminded that most are in prison for good reasons. The answer is not that she wants to liberate all the prisoners in America—it’s that although they have committed crimes, the right to call themselves people instead of felons should not be withheld.
Because of our very human inclination to label everything and everyone, it is most likely that the dehumanization of prisoners is going to continue to be problematic. However, identifying the problem is often the first step to fixing it. As long as people become aware that their language is dehumanizing, they may take more care in the future.
Reference: “Hot felon: Branding Jeremy Meeks” by Lindsey Feldman