Mass Incarceration and the Problem of Language

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I think what we name things has meaning. I also think that much of the vocabulary employed in the world of policy, activism, and the academy should be spurned by writers. I am deeply sympathetic to the authors of the phrase “School To Prison Pipeline,” but it’s not a phrase I can ever use. “School To Prison Pipeline” is a phrase that causes lightbulbs to go off among people who are already skeptical of state and institutional power. But my job, as a writer, is to explain as clearly as possible, and avoid language that assumes agreement.

This is not a favor to those I disagree with. It is an essential step in the quest to be able to explain, with detail and nuance, the world around me. Of course, I fail at that all the time. Brevity and clarity are sometimes at odds—but the writer strives for both. In that vein, if you ever catch me earnestly employing the phrase “white privilege” or telling someone to “admit their privilege,” take away the keyboard. It’s over for me.

Indeed, if I’d had my druthers, I would not have used the word “mass incarceration” in my latest piece.

It is has the same problem as “white privilege”—it’s an  abstraction which deadens the very real violence that lurks behind the term. “Mass Incarceration” ultimately won. But I did not give up my quest for some new language to evoke what I felt going through the research and reporting. I thought about using Moloch to capture the entirety of our perverted criminal justice system—something about the idea of child sacrifice seemed apt. My wife vetoed that. I had a few others and eventually picked up my old Manual of the Planes and came up with this:

The Gray Waste is the plane of strongly focused evil within the D&D cosmology; its main theme is that of hopelessness and despair. In the Gray Waste, colors fade to muted shades of gray (except for the occasional portal, which are colored bronze, silver, or gold, depending on where they lead) and the land itself works to remain as soulless as possible. Extended visits to the plane cause travelers to lose interest in leaving; soon after, the entrapping effect of the plane takes over, causing increased apathy and despair. Eventually their sanity and memories fade away, and they become permanent petitioners of the plane.

According to Trenton Webb's critical review of Planes of Conflict for British RPG magazine Arcane, the Gray Waste "erodes the sense of purpose that is the hallmark of an alignment-based philosophy. One symptom of this is the place's ability to fade the colour from a character's clothes!"

You just can’t beat that. And you don’t have to be D&D-lover (like me) to love that phrase. I think our world could use more poetry and so often I find that poetry is most alive in the world of pop culture—in hip-hop, comic books, pro wrestling, pro football. On the street. Richard Braceful, who I interviewed for this piece, told me that a man given life in the prison where he served was said to have “letters but no numbers.” I thought that was so evocative. I’ve always thought that beautiful language came up from the bottom, even if it’s ultimately studied at the top.