Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts: What’s the Difference?

Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts: What’s the Difference?

Prisons are political places. Nothing shows this more than how those in prisons choose to refer to themselves. Some prefer the term prisoner. Others prefer inmate. And still, others favor convict. Since prison is such a political environment, referring to those in the prison context pursuant to their chosen term, whether inmate, prisoner, or convict, is essential. But how to decide which term to use? What is the significance of each term?

Facts Are Facts: Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts Are All the Same

Regardless of whether the person in prison prefers to refer to himself as an inmate, a prisoner, or a convict, they are all one and the same in a general sense of role. Prisons house people who are convicted of crimes. They are incarcerated. And, as incarcerated people, they are officially known as inmates, casually referred to as prisoners. Still, some think of themselves as convicts (a very politically loaded term in the prison context). What differs is the way they see themselves and how that personal view determines or directs their interactions with others. As with those on the outside, how these people see themselves influences how they interact with others.

It is essential to realize that seemingly insignificant matters can become significant ones in the insular world of prison. In the prison context, calling someone an inmate, for example, can be akin to calling them a “snitch” or an informant. And calling someone a prisoner, when the person feels that they are, in fact, a convict, can be an insult too, though certainly not as bad as calling them an inmate. Prison politics can be messy and, unfortunately, dangerous. As such, it is vital to understand what each of the terms means and what each symbolizes. By understanding these terms, respect can be given where it is due, and the prison culture itself can be better understood, and the players involved within it quantified.

Inmate: Official but Perceived as Being Subservient

Those outside of prison tend to think of those incarcerated as inmates. Many believe that the term inmate denotes an incarcerated person and that using the clean term inmate means the derogatory term of prisoner is avoided. It isn’t so much a term of respect but a term of being. That is the view from outside the walls. This is the opposite of how those in prison view the term inmate.

Those in prison who have done some time consider the term inmate derogatory. They see it as an incarcerated person who does what the administration asks them to do. (Think of someone being patted on the head and told, “Now that is a good inmate,” and you’ll get the right idea.)  Somehow the term inmate is perceived as denoting an obedient dog, and one that is called “Dog,” not its actual name. Depending on your perspective, it is sad to see so many “inmates” in American prisons today.

Due to the significance of this term — a term meant to denote an obedient incarcerated person who probably informs on others in the prison context –, it can be a problem to call someone an inmate who doesn’t identify as such. It can be viewed as so disrespectful that the only way to defend one’s honor is to engage in acts of violence against the person who inappropriately uses the term. Naturally, we’re talking about ideologies and theoretical defenses to insults. While violence is much more prevalent in the prison culture, there is still an impetus for employing it. And this impetus — risk and potential sanctions — does dissuade some who would engage in acts of violence, even if the inspiration is a perceived front to one’s dignity or respect (i.e., calling someone in prison an “inmate” would probably be one such situation where even if the expression angered the person, it just wouldn’t be worth it to fight over the term’s utilization).

The other side of the coin is those who don’t buy into the politics of prison. Some are short-timers or choose to stay out of prison politics not out of ignorance but by informed choice. Those who fall into this group don’t care what term is used to refer to them. They see themselves as people in prison, serving their time, and will one day get out and never again be bothered by American corrections. Whether they are called inmates, prisoners, or convicts, they don’t care. These are probably the more rational ones but not necessarily the ones best equipped for life in prison, where criminality (and a sense of male bravado) tends to be the central tenet of interpersonal relations.

Prisoner: The Middle of the Road

The term upon which most incarcerated persons can agree is that of prisoner. Unlike an inmate, a prisoner is perceived as an average incarcerated person. Prisoners do their time. Prisoners keep their business to themselves and don’t bother themselves with others’ business. The term prisoner is neutral since it doesn’t denote a willingness to obey the prison administration’s desires and whims. It doesn’t denote a drive to disobey the prison administration, either.

From the long-term incarcerated person’s perspective, the term prisoner expresses a person in prison. It doesn’t denote someone who’s a patsy for the prison administration, as the term inmate does. And it doesn’t mean someone who feels like they run the prison, as the term convict does. It is a middle-ground term that most incarcerated persons can agree on, at least tacitly, for prisoners are anything but agreeable. In contrast, inmates most certainly are (as the politics of prison would assert).

While those outside of prison might think it more respectful to utilize the terminology of inmate, using that clean and clinical term backfires, especially in the higher security prisons and with those who have done significant time in them. Best political practice says that calling someone in prison a prisoner will not offend, irrespective of whether the person identifies as an inmate, a prisoner, or a convict. While there might be some rub with the latter, the term prisoner will not be deemed an insult as the term inmate would.

Convict: A Tough Outlook On Life

The term convict is a term that all but those who view themselves as convicts can agree has a very negative connotation. In prison society, convicts feel that they rule the roost. Convicts are prisoners who are gruff, violent, and demand respect. Convicts think they are in charge of whatever happens inside a prison or cellblock. And years ago, convicts used to do just that.

In the 1960s through the 1980s, prisons were more than mere prisons; they were dungeons of unimaginable fears. Rapes were commonplace. Murders, too. And to survive in the prisons of those days, one had to, in the words of one old-timer, “Drink a lot of water and carry a big stick.” You had to be healthy and willing to fight. And fight people did. But as the 90s came around, and significant educational and rehabilitative programming became available to occupy prisoners’ time, prisons started to calm down a bit. By the 2000s, they resembled a chicken coup more than a dungeon, a place to be warehoused, not tortured. Sadly, even though the prisons have calmed down, most meaningful educational and rehabilitative opportunities have been stripped. And this is the age we are currently in.

In this day and age, there are three types of convicts. One, convicts at maximum security prisons, where wanton violence is the order of the day. Two, convicts who lived through prisons of old and have the scars to prove it. And three, those who think they are convicts are simply bullies who think they run something but really don’t. The common denominator is that those who identify as convicts are gruff sorts who, depending on your viewpoint, either cause problems for everyone or stay true to the convict code. It is all a matter of perception.

Convicts often speak of a “Convict Code,” a set of social conventions viewed as essential in higher security facilities, where the slightest misstep can be fatal. For example, under the Convict Code, one never reports another convict’s business to a guard, even if that convict is dying in his cell and needs medical attention. There are also “hands off” rules dictating conflicts between races, wherein anyone who has an altercation with a member of another race without consensus agreement will be punished by his racial group. This policy reduces the possibility of serious group racial conflicts. It is a convict-run policy that is the product of long, painful experiences, as is most of the Convict Code. While much of this code may appear harsh to outsiders, the Convict Code is, at least in the eyes of many who live by it, a method of ensuring survival.

The convict’s perspective is all about stratification. Convicts see themselves as the top dog in the prison social hierarchy. They see ordinary prisoners below them and inmates below those. Even less desirable groups would then be placed below the inmates. In direct contrast, the educated prisoner would view convicts as lesser than them but more than an inmate. And an inmate would consider their “civilized” ways to be chief of all. It turns out that those in prison form groups and classify the groups just as those on the outside do; by placing the group, they belong to at the top of the social strata and find reasons to designate other groups below their own. No real surprise there.

Inmates, Prisoners, and Convicts: What to Choose?

In every jail, detention center, prison, and other secure holding facility, there is an underground culture at work. This culture comprises those who reside in the correctional facility and their daily interactions. At the rougher prisons, i.e., maximum security prisons and some medium security prisons, the culture is influenced by violence and intimidation. At almost all low-security prisons and minimum-security prisons, there is a culture of complacency. The difference between these two cultures is life-changing and life-altering for those who must live in them. And due to these differences in circumstances, those who reside therein have different self-images and outward expressions thereof. Some feel that they are an inmate. Others feel that they are a prisoner. And still, others think that they are a convict. I would dare to say that the higher the prison security, the higher the ratio of self-described “prisoners” and “convicts” would be.

Whether we call our incarcerated class inmates, prisoners, or convicts, they are, in many ways, the same. The difference has to do with self-perception and how it manifests itself externally. And by understanding the terms of inmate, prisoner, and convict — and what they symbolize — we’ll better understand those they apply to.