From the Inside Out: Ongoing Research

Through empirical studies and the artistic dissemination of their results in publications, through public outreach campaigns and art-based programming, and through media this project aims to produce and exhibit evidence about the detrimental effects of dehumanizing language and misrepresentations of people in jail/prison in three different contexts: public opinion, judicial context, and prison settings. In so doing, this project ultimately aims to sensitize public opinion and criminal justice professionals about the negative consequences that dehumanizing labeling and misperceptions have on the lives of those who are or have been impacted by incarceration.


The research conducted in this project is divided into four parts. First, a statistical analysis of whether negative and dehumanizing stigma attaches to the language used to describe people in prison (Language of Dehumanization Project). Second, a historical analysis of the language and dehumanization in the context of incarceration in the US (History of Language Project). Third, an investigation into the role of neuroscience in decreasing dehumanization of people in prison (Neuroscience Project). And finally, an assessment of how people who have experienced the prison system first hand regard systems of incarceration and view their own identities (Interview Project).


Language of Dehumanization Project

The Language of Dehumanization Project is divided into two parts. The first part, the pilot study, created a survey measuring each of Haslam’s characteristics of human uniqueness and nature against Haslam’s characteristics of  mechanistic and animalistic dehumanization. Participants answered on Likert scales their perception of whether or not these traits were attributed to 14 different labels, including the 3 prison related terms of interest (inmate, convict, prisoner). The study evolved from a body of research which identifies that people in prison are widely perceived as dangerous and manipulative  and are therefore dehumanized by way of severe neglect in the form of moral exclusions and disengagement by prison guards and other staff (Haslam, 2006; Blackler, 2015; Gullapalli, 2015). Despite this accumulated knowledge of abuses in a prison context, mistreatment continues to occur. The study hypothesised that widespread dehumanization of the prison population through the language used to describe people in prison and the stigma this language carries could be one reason why a large proportion of society remains silent in the face of mistreatment of people in prison.

The Pilot Study is currently subject to statistical analysis. A follow up study, study 2, is currently in preparatory stages. Study 2 will focus on the identification of human characteristics about a person. It hypothesizes that the more we identify humanity in the way we reference people, the less we perceive them in a dehumanizing manner. Participants would answer a similar questionnaire to that utilized in the Pilot Study, but they would be divided into three groups. Group one would answer questions framed using words such as word inmate or prisoner. The second group would be questioned with “person first” language, for example, person who is in prison. The third group would be given more context about the individual, providing information on their situation or aspects of their characteristics, for example, person who is in prison awaiting trial.


History of Language Project

The History of Language Project aims to produce a historical reference of how media and language has been used to shape perceptions of people in prison. It will analyze the manner in which law, policy and popular discourse has shaped punitive attitudes. The study constitutes a longitudinal assessment of attitudes towards crime and people in prison both in the legal system and the media. It will utilize historical research and literature review to assess how the media representation of people in prison intersects with and is reflected in the policy and law of the day. In addition, it will investigate whether it is the legal framework, popular media or personal opinion and experience that influence the public opinion of people in prison at particular points in time. The aim of the project is to produce a series of publications  on topics in the historical representation of people in prison, and to consolidate these publications into a “Humans In Prisons Report” which will provide a broad analysis of the historical context of imprisonment in the US.


Neuroscience Project

The Neuroscience Project aims to use the techniques of neuroscience to identify punitive triggers through neuro-activity stimulated by language used in the criminal justice system. The project will ask whether neuroscientific imaging demonstrates a link between dehumanizing legal language, public imagery and other jargon and more punitive attitudes, discrimination and exclusion of people in prison.

  • Thesis: Dehumanization stems from the court systems and law practices (retributive punishment). If we change the way language is used and perceived, and move toward humanistic language in law jurisdictions, we will change the way people who are incarcerated are perceived and move toward restorative justice.


Interview Study

The prison is an impoverished social environment that puts a strain on external social relationships and produces relationships within prison built on imbalanced power dynamics. The disruption of communication with the outside world and the arbitrary authority, moral exclusion and disengagement of prison staff with people who are incarcerated  undermines a person’s self-esteem and reshapes how they relate to free society post-incarceration. We  propose that  the social dynamics of incarceration result in a diminishment of self-worth and the destabilization of important family/friend/professional ties. When transitioning out of prison, people are forced to shift from a state of social-powerlessness to a state of social-agency, and must adjust from a socially-deprived self into a socially-abundant self in order to reintegrate effectively into society. The disruption of social relationships due to incarceration hinders PIP’s ability to effectively interact in free society post incarceration.



The Effect of Courtroom and Media (De)humanizing Language on Lay and Legal Actors’ Attitudes Towards Criminal Defendants

This study aims to examine the impact of dehumanizing language on punitive attitudes both in lay people and legal experts. Specifically, the study aims to assess whether specific linguistic choices that are commonly used in the media (crime drama) and in courtrooms (at the sentencing stage) to address people who are involved in the criminal justice system (the “perpetrators”) influence the perception of these people and, consequently, the emotional and punitive attitudes towards them. The rationale for this study lies fundamentally in the concern for the excessive punitiveness that characterizes the US criminal justice system. We hypothesize that one of the sources of such punitiveness lies also in the influence that language has on (mis)perceptions of people who engage in criminal behavior. We aim to show that more humanizing linguistic choices may change the perception of people who engage in criminal behavior, and may also be linked with attitudes toward rehabilitation rather than harsh retribution.

Social Relationships Interview Study

We will investigate the social impact that incarceration has on pre-existing relationships, relationships developed in prison and post-incarceration relationships. Of particular interest is  person’s capacity to navigate various social obligations post-incarceration. During incarceration, PIP are subject to the arbitrary authority of prison officials and share a diminished social status with other people serving time in prison. These imbalanced power dynamics – implicitly and explicitly- may cripple a PIP’s ability to positively engage with other people, and consequently impede their ability to meet social obligations, in prison or post-incarceration. In focus groups held at the Center for Justice at Columbia University, formerly incarcerated men and women reported that because prison relationships must exist within the context of imbalanced power dynamics, incarceration often alienates PIP from their pre-existing social relationships, negatively influences self-perception, and causes PIP to carry an internalized status of subservience with them when they rejoin free society post-incarceration. Formerly incarcerated individuals typically cited daily treatment from prison staff and limited communication with the outside world as punitive methods used to disfigure their self-esteem and increase their levels of rejection sensitivity.

Because there continues to be an “eclipse” in the prison ethnography since incarceration rates began to rise in the late 1970s, more research on people’s social relations during and post incarceration is needed to understand the psychological and broader social impact of dehumanizing prison conditions. As social beings, human identity cannot be understood as distinct from the social world. Psychological and sociological theories on the development of identity stress how societal moral authority is continuously balanced against personal desire in governing a person’s actions and how they view themselves. A person’s identity is constantly being reshaped throughout their lives, as their interactions with their external environment define how they perceive themselves and find meaning in their lives (Freud, Mead, Durkheim, etc.). For this reason, it is critical to examine the dynamics of people’s social environments when trying to understand human development behind bars. In the era of mass incarceration where millions of people are being imprisoned each year (Prison Policy Initiative, 2015), it is crucial to understand how the prison environment can reshape how people view themselves and how they relate to others.