Stop Calling Me A “Criminal”

by Joshua Hoe


I am a formerly incarcerated person who is pro-gun control.

But, I want to say this clearly and with no confusion.

I am not a “Criminal.”

Yes, you will inevitably post a definition in response that says a “criminal” is anyone who has committed a crime. In that case, virtually everyone in the United States is a criminal.

Have you jaywalked? Okay, by this definition, that makes you a criminal too.

The use of that broad definition doesn’t do anyone any good in trying to make sense of how we should discuss crime in America.

In addition, this constant division of the country into people who are “good” and people who are “bad” is destined to end in tears. Everyone that I have ever met has both the capacity to engage in great good and to commit great evil.

I have personally sat across the table from armed robbers who were incredibly caring and across from non-felons who seemed fundamentally incapable of empathy or compassion.

In my experience, which is pretty extensive, the majority of “criminals” had no idea they were even capable of committing their crimes until they found themselves in the situation. Many were suffering from addiction (not an excuse, but an explanation).

My point is not that we did not deserve punishment, it is that we deserve to reclaim our citizenship and rights after we pay our debt to society (and that we should always be treated as human beings no matter where we are).

I am also arguing that we, as a society, have to create the rhetorical space for all human beings to be treated with dignity.

Almost all of the violence in the world starts with erasing people from counting and making classes of people disposable.

Brutality is always brutality.

It does not matter if the person committing brutality has official sanction, if the brutality is committed by a citizen being cruel, or the brutality is committed by someone intending to commit a crime.

Brutality is always brutality.

In this national gun control discussion, politicians of every stripe keep talking about how important it is to keep “criminals” away from guns.

I personally have never had and never want to possess a gun.

But every time I hear the debate framed this way it makes me want to start opposing gun control on principle.

I, and every other formerly incarcerated person believe we paid our debt, and should be able to again exercise our “inalienable rights” in full. We already did our time being reduced to a number and/or a label.

I am not your “criminal” to treat as a sub-human anymore.

I get that prison is a sad necessity of a modern society, but I am not in prison and I am no longer on parole or probation.

No offense, but it offends me that you want to treat me that way.

I am a citizen of the United States of America. I am a human being and I have dignity.

I have been endowed, by my creator with certain rights that I fully believe are inalienable.

I Am Not An Animal

Labels matter, and if your labels don’t create space for people to change or to have paid their debt to society, you keep all of us who have spent time in jail and/or prison permanently and perceptually engaged in the commission of crimes.

I committed criminal acts, but I am not a criminal.

I am not currently engaged in criminality nor is my occupation criminal in nature.

And most important, I am a human being and I am endowed by my creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am not an animal.

So, stop labeling me as if I have not served my sentence. Stop treating me like I am still in prison (and stop treating the people in prison as if they are sub-human).

At the very least, stop referring to me as a “criminal.”

The preferred nomenclature is still being played out, but you can feel free to call me “formerly incarcerated.”

Have Some Respect

No matter what you think of my crimes (and I am certainly not proud of them myself), I paid a pretty serious debt. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) said:

“One day in prison is longer than almost any day you and I have had to endure. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes just one day in prison in the literary classic ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.’ Ivan Denisovich had a ten-year sentence. At one point he multiplies the long days in these long years by ten.”

Trust me, Solzhenitsyn was right.

I am part of a brother and sisterhood of many millions who have spent many long days in prison and who have lost careers, friends, and even family in the process.

Those of you who watch shows like Oz, Rectify, or Orange is the New Black may empathize but until you actually hear the doors lock behind you, you probably can’t really understand.

We who have formerly been incarcerated deserve respect, many of us have survived things you can’t even imagine.

Cut the demonization out.

Even if you can’t appreciate that, hopefully, you can see that it is not in your interest to give the nation of the formerly incarcerated no place to live except under the label “criminal.”

I would also appreciate it if the politicians pushing for gun control understood that they are making it nearly impossible for people like me to support them, or the gun control agenda.

When the base of the argument for gun-control is that we so-called “criminals” can never again be trusted or endowed with the rights that are afforded regularly to every other citizen it makes me want to tell you to take your agenda and shove it.

I might even be okay with risk-assessment eliminating me for consideration for a gun. If it can be determined that people like me, who have never even touched a gun but are formerly incarcerated, are at high-risk for gun violence.

I am all for limiting types of weapons, types of magazines, mandatory training, and registration of gun owners. I am not even opposed to considering adjustments to the Second Amendment (with great caution).

But, I am not for anything that starts by labeling my brothers and sisters in incarceration together as “criminals.” We are NOT criminals, we are people who committed crimes.

Sorry for the rant.

What do you think of using the term “criminals”, let me know what you think (if civil), leave a comment!


2 thoughts on “Stop Calling Me A “Criminal”

  1. This post hit me at a good time Joshua. I’m reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s so clear our concepts of criminality need to be reformed along with the policy behind mistreatment.
    I guess when I think of criminal, I think of one who breaks the law, consistently. I like how you framed it to think of a criminal as someone who once broke the law.


    1. Mark,

      Thanks for the reply.

      Recidivism is another problem for sure. I believe people should be punished for the crimes that they commit. My problem is not with being arrested or sentenced, it is with being considered perpetually a “criminal.”

      From a sociological and consequentialist point of view, it doesn’t seem wise to leave the formerly incarcerated (like me) nothing that we can be other than criminals. Hopelessness is one of the main triggers of addiction, re-offense, and recidivism.

      Regardless of that, I paid my debt to society and refuse to be treated like anything other than a human being (with dignity and rights).

      People can, and will, treat me differently but I will continue to respond to them in this same way.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!



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