Journal Entry: Douglas Jason Way-02/25/2024-NO LABELS

Journal Entry

Most guys complained when they were assigned to participate in the role-playing sessions. Not me.

In early 2023, after years of allegations of physical, sexual, racial, and psychological abuse of the men imprisoned at USP Thomson, the BOP finally decided to close the maximum security facility. The Bureau’s central office cited concerns regarding institutional culture as their reason for the closure. Then the head-scratching decision was made to put almost all of the same people who had created that culture right back to work by reclassifying Thomson as a low security prison and moving in more than a thousand men.

The BOP was unwilling or unable to undertake the housecleaning in the ranks at Thomson necessary to create a meaningful culture shift, opting instead to conduct a series of trainings in interpersonal skills that included role-playing. Officers were given scenarios, some fraught with the potential for conflict and others more positive, and coached on how to approach us with calm, respect, and humanity in order to achieve better outcomes.

From my years in sales in sales and sales management, I am a believer in role-playing as a training tool, so I approached my assignment with enthusiasm. I decided that I would test the officers in creative ways. If they responded calmly with respect, I would be compliant. If they escalated, so would I. But instead of reacting with the belligerence they were accustomed to, I would antagonize them with arrogance. Suffice it to say, some handled it better than others.

One interaction got off to a bad start when the officer addressed me as “inmate Way.” Before he could get into his spiel, I interrupted him and said, “I don’t like being called that.” What I knew from experience was that staff who addressed us with “inmate” were usually on a power trip. They know and we know that that word has negative connotations and they use it to remind us of what they believe to be our proper place. Officers who are being respectful say Mr. Smith, or just use our last names when addressing us.

I also knew that labels were a hot-button issue among the staff as Director Peters was attempting to make the BOP more humane. She used terms like “neighbors” and “residents in custody” instead of “inmates” and the old school officers were mocking her for it.

My role-playing partner was clearly not accustomed to being rebuffed and as a wave of frustration moved across his face, he asked, “You don’t like being called what?” To further tweak him, I refused to say inmate, instead replying, “The I-word.” He stammered in response, “But…but that is what you are.” I corrected him and said, “I am a man and my name is Douglas Way. You can call me Way or Mr. Way.” Not surprisingly, the interaction went downhill from there.

It was fascinating to watch that man struggle with my unwillingness to be labelled. He used that label to dehumanize me because he thought that that was the right way to do his job. Perhaps he had even been trained to do so. I was demanding that he see me as a human being and he couldn’t do it.

Some might say that we’re making too big a deal of semantics. Political correctness is out of control and doesn’t change anything. Director Peters has serious issues to address within the agency, why is she concerned with what the men in women in her custody are called? While pushback at the extremes is fair, the truth is that language matters. The words we use convey meaning, affecting attitudes and actions. In aggregate words, attitudes, and actions create culture. Director Peters inherited a dysfunctional culture and she is attempting to change it in any way she can.

While I applaud her intent, I disagree with the tactic of exchanging one label for another. This has crystallized for me as I’ve listened to announcements over the camp intercom. A very few officers still page us by saying, “Inmate Smith, report to…” instead of only using our last names. They are the holdouts who disregard the directives they’ve been given and still cling to the negative reinforcement of authority. There is no legitimate need to use that qualifier as the campers are the only ones who ever get paged. Dropping it is a step in the right direction.

Recently, however, the evolution took a twist for the comical when we heard the page, “Justice impacted individual Smith, please report to the officers’ station.” The officer, who is one who treats us with respect and humanity, was poking fun at the attempt to replace one label that is laden with negative baggage with another that is so tortured that it sounds absurd. We all had a good laugh, but unfortunately, the fact that language matters was lost in the moment. Even worse, the label swap and the resulting backlash are a distraction from the need to dramatically change the culture.

If the label is the problem, as labels so often are, the solution is not a better label. The solution is no label. Director Peters is right when she says that the job of the BOP is not to make better inmates, but rather to make better neighbors. To make me a better neighbor, there is no need to call me neighbor Way or justice impacted individual Way or qualifier of any kind Way. I’m a person and my name is Way. I am a part of a group of people who are currently incarcerated. We are people. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Keeping it simple allows us to move on to the heavy lifting that we have to do if we are going to shift paradigms.

Dehumanization, and all of its destructive consequences for the jailers and the jailed, is still a major problem in the system. It’s not enough for me to point out the problem. I need to be a part of the solution. To that end, I have been working hard to stop judging and labeling the people who live and work at the camp at Thomson, and instead start seeing their humanity. And because I believe that language matters, I am practicing learning and using their names. It’s simple, but it works. It is my way of saying, “I see you and value you as a person, even if the culture does not.”