Insights Do Labels Really Matter?
18 October 2019

Do Labels Really Matter?

Do labels really matter

For decades, what to label people who break the law has been a contentious issue not least because many of the labels are pejorative and reinforce negative stereotypes. As a newly qualified probation officer we called such people “clients”, this changed to “offenders” when Michael Howard became Home Secretary and today, we use the more enlightened term “service users”. However, changing the label doesn’t change attitudes.

Seetec works with people who often find it difficult to get a job, including those with a criminal record. And we’re proud of our success in placing people from prison into decent jobs with strong futures. But, occasionally, we are reminded of the stark realities of how hard it can be to put your past behind you.

Recently, we placed a man on temporary release from prison with an employer. The man was a hard worker and the employer had offered him a permanent job at the end of his sentence. Unfortunately, one of his co-workers searched his name online and found out about his crime. As a result, his employment became unviable.  

We have also heard of a similar case with another ex-prisoner (not one we had worked with) losing his job a year after starting his role. Again, a colleague had expressed concerns to the employer about working with the individual following an internet search she had done.

Both these cases highlight the barriers to rehabilitation people with a criminal record are up against. Even initiatives like “Ban the Box” and legislation such as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act fail to protect service users. While we sincerely hope that neither of these two men will reoffend as a result of their setbacks, it is easy to understand how this does happen.

Labels do of course matter, as Becker, Lemert, Goffman and others through Labelling Theory pointed out, but so do attitudes. Simply calling something or someone by a more enlightened label does not in itself create the right conditions for rehabilitation – only the wide scale education and understanding of society at large can do that

Changing the label should be the last step in attitudinal change, not the first.

Seetec Justice works with a range of employers to reinforce the benefits of supporting ex-offenders in their rehabilitation through employment. We see this as the first step to dispelling myths and encouraging a more positive environment for those who want to turn their lives around.

To learn more about Seetec Justice and its work in prisons, contact us today.