Language Lounge

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The Corrections (Industry)

If you ride the train from Philadelphia to New York and look out the windows to the East at a certain point in New Jersey, you'll see a large and somewhat attractive campus of modern buildings, fronted by a sign with foot-high, engraved lettering that says "Corrections Institution." And if you were an alien, visiting the planet for the first time and armed only with a primer of English, you might deduce that this was a place where editors were trained, though you would be puzzled about the coils of razor wire everywhere around the perimeter of the complex. If you're a native speaker, on the other hand, you probably already have a pointer in your brain, running from terms like "Corrections Institution" directly to a simpler placeholder in your mental lexicon: prison. When we took this train journey recently it got us to thinking about the pervasive but limited success of correction and its derivatives to denote the punishment end of the criminal justice system.

Whether correction, corrective, corrections and correctional  register with you as terms inviting scrutiny for characterizing state-sanctioned punishment may depend largely on your age. People under the age of 40 or so may find the terms unremarkable and may even use items like "correctional institution" or "corrections officer" in preference to older terms. In the United States, the changeover from older terms seems to have begun around the 1950s and then continued inexorably: now all 50 states use some form of correction to name the departments or agencies that oversee prisons (uh, correctional institutions) within their borders.

Photo from the online historical timeline of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
The online caption of the photo is: "1957. The training program for custodial staff was upgraded.
'Guards,' now called 'Correctional Officers,' were trained in modern penology techniques."

Canada, similarly, has the national-level Corrections Service as well as Correctional Centres at the provincial level. Australia calls its national body the Department of Corrective Services.

In these three bastions of Anglophonia then – Australia, Canada, and the U.S. – correction is clearly the term of art at the official level for designating penal institutions and activities. But speakers don't update their mental lexicons so readily, and in ordinary, informal conversation, prison still holds first place. The U.S. Federal government operates hundreds of facilities, none of which is officially called a prison today, but the body that oversees all of them got the name Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930 and has stuck with it.

What's more, you don't have to drill down very far on the websites of any of the aforementioned bodies before you find that they call the institutions they manage the same thing that you do: prisons. Here, for example, is a paragraph from the Federal Bureau of Prisons website:

If the inmate is in the prison's health services unit, the Medical Officer may decide not to allow a visit for health-related reasons. Sometimes inmates go to hospitals in the community. Usually only immediate family can visit, according to the hospital's policy. In either case, be sure to contact the prison before you visit.

What, then, is the motive to give a new name to an institution and a range of its functions that everyone already has names for? Prison has been kicking around in English practically since day one of the language; its earliest meaning was to denote the state or condition of captivity. Prison has been used to designate a building or institution for housing those held captive since the 13th century. That's still the case in the British Isles, where correction doesn't seem to have caught on at all at the official level: the bodies in charge of housing offenders there are Her Majesty's Prison Service (England and Wales), the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Scottish Prison service, and the Irish Prison Service.

Sign outside Pentonville Prison, London

We expect that the widespread adoption of correction and its peers is a replay of an earlier overhaul of terminology that was the great innovation of the 19th century: penitentiary. This term, like correction, was largely a North American phenomenon and remains today in limited use. Penitentiary spawned the still current short form pen, and nearly two dozen U.S. institutions are still officially called penitentiaries, all of them housing serious offenders. Canada's present day Corrections Service started out life as the Canadian Penitentiary Service.

Saskatchewan Penitentiary Guards, 1913

From the online interactive timeline of the Canadian Corrections Service, "Corrections in Canada." The original caption is "1913: Saskatchewan Penitentiary Guards."

Does the adoption of new terminology for problematic institutions express an abstract hope or aspiration of society? The wordmap of prison is a fairly bleak one that goes nowhere. The wordmap of penitentiary, on the other hand, has a dotted line to penitence, and the wordmap of correction, a fairly full one, has connections to therapy and rectification. Undoubtedly a fraction of prison populations were and are today penitent; perhaps a greater fraction are in fact subject to correction, though the massively disproportional size of the U.S. prison population might suggest otherwise. But it is usually more comforting to think of prisoners as penitent or corrigible than merely detained, so perhaps our modern terminology reflects this preferred view.

Another factor we think is at play is the tendency to euphemize problematic institutions – those that society is never quite at ease with. The career of prison terminology has a slight parallel in the names adopted for institutions that we sometimes call "residential treatment facilities" today, but that have previously gone by the name of insane asylum, mental institution, and a number of even less savory slang terms. Renaming these institutions from time to time may serve to sweep away negative associations. Americans who were alive in the early 1970s heard the name "Attica State Prison" innumerable times because of the riots that occurred there. Today the place is officially called "Attica Correctional Facility."

From the surge in popularity that it experience 50 or so years ago, you might suppose that the use of correction to characterize disciplinary punishment was a 20th century innovation in English. In fact it's much older than that. House of correction first appears in the 16th century, and before that, even Chaucer says, in the "Friar's Tale":

Thanne hadde he thurgh his Iurisdiccion Power to doon on hem correccion.

So it would seem that the promoters of correction and its derivatives were simply implementing nomenclature that had been waiting in the wings of English. Is correction here to stay? Despite its lengthy pedigree, correction has a slightly Orwellian feel to it, leading us to wonder if the next overhaul of prison terminology, perhaps later in this century, will be something even creepier: something along the lines of pacification institute ... conversion center ... destigmatorium.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 1st 2010, 1:41 AM
Comment by: John N.
The Vermont Department of Corrections uses the services of a private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America, to hold incarcerated individuals. One of the facilities is located in Beattyville, KY, the Lee Adjustment Center. Now that's Orwellian!
Monday November 1st 2010, 2:05 AM
Comment by: Gordon K. (San Francisco, CA)
Well dear friends, the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) is very real and very powerful, determining policy in many states (California has the largest system in the world, after the US as a whole). But the Arizona situation is - typical of the state - open and undisguised insanity. See this timid but very accurate report from NPR detailing that specific prison corporation leaders wrote the bill that has made AZ famous this season:
Monday November 1st 2010, 5:00 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
I live in Maadi, just south of Cairo, Egypt, near a prison, but at first I didn't know that because on the city map the area is labeled as "Police Golf Course"!!!
Monday November 1st 2010, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
And the juvenile detention facilities are of course "State Schools" with campuses...c'mon, these kids aren't locked up for GOOD behavior. I find it amazing how far we will go not to offend our increasingly delicate selves. Or is it simply deception...we count ourselves more civilized because of the words we use to describe our treatment of other humans.
Monday November 1st 2010, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
In the UK we used to have a "Ministry of War". Now there's an honest name for you. But some time after the second world war we changed it to "Ministry of Defence". OK, that sounds good, and that is the way it is called in nearly every country in the world.

But if countries only ever defend themselves, how is it possible that we still have wars? Are all wars now wars of self-defence? Does somebody expect me to believe that?
Monday November 1st 2010, 10:30 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
I volunteer with a ministry to women who have close friends or family members who are in prison. I have trouble saying what our literature seems to prefer as the term for these intimates: "incarcerated loved ones." It is more precise and polite than "friends or relatives who are inmates of correctional institutions" but is euphemistic to an embarrassing degree. I hate that word "incarcerated"-- sounds like a cancer, which perhaps it is. And it somehow doesn't go with "loved ones"-- which is sentimental sounding and euphemistic in a different way.
Monday November 1st 2010, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Pamela L: I agree! I had thought of including some terms for these institutions as well, since the development seems to be parallel. When I was a child, "reformatory" seemed to be the main US term. I think "juvenile detention facility" is a bit euphemistic, as if it were an extension of "detention" in high school. The UK has gone from "borstal" to "young offenders institution" -- which at least acknowledges that there was an offense.
Monday November 1st 2010, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Scott R. (Amherst, MA)
The vernacular for juvenile detention around here is "lockup".
Monday November 1st 2010, 1:02 PM
Comment by: Constance S. (Toronto Canada)
Thank you for this article.

How interesting that 'correccion' appeared in Chaucer!

The change in nomenclature has a parallel in the development of the therapeutic state, which is distinctly Orwellian. I find the notion that prisoners are to be corrected far more offensive than the notion that they are to be restrained for their crimes, partly because correction implies far more curtailment of human liberty than imprisonment or perhaps even punishment.
Monday November 1st 2010, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Gerhard P. (Nesoddtangen Norway)
One rather simple explanation for the use of a word like "corrections" is that in many countries the same governmental body is responsible for implementing sanctions in prison as well as in the community. It would then be wrong to call it "the prison service", since that would exclude a large portion of the work being done. And the organisations in Great Britain may well be called "prison services", but they are then a part of what is called the "National Offender Management Service (NOMS)". Chew on that one for a bit.
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 1:36 AM
Comment by: toodance (WA)
I am over 60 and think of correctional institutions as penitentiaries, as I lived in the Bay area most of my my youth. I take a dim view of the change in nomenclature.

In my opinion, correctional institutions do not correct a person's morals. The government changed the name to make it seem to the public that correctional institutions are correcting behaviour.

Hah. A person decides for oneself, to want change. Prison does not deter serious crime.

Besides, a repeat offender is a corporate 'correctional' institution's bread and butter. Corrected behaviour does not pay stock holder dividends.
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 12:59 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I know anything about "prison" except novels which press and media convey. As the comment from Anonymous
I am over 6à too and think that "prison" is not a good thing for anybody. But how to do?

Correctionnal Institutions may be hurt someone, also "penitentiaries.

I am frencha nd I am sure you can find similarity sentences in France's Law.

Sometimes prison has a favorable effect on people who decide change, who again decide studying, so the number of them remain minority.
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 7:19 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Certainly the terms we use to describe prisons are euphemisms for consumption by the greater public, but they do reflect a philosophy about the purpose of prisons. For one thing, the terms may remind the people who work in prisons what they are supposed to be doing, and how they should be treating the people who are being held there. For instance, "people are put in prison as punishment, not for punishment." That is, the inmates shouldn't be subjected to beatings and other abuse by guards, etc., simply because they are prisoners.

After a while, the association wears out, or the philosophy changes, and we need new terms.

I also remember the term "reformatory" or "reform school" for a prison for young people. On the other hand, I have heard prison referred to as "crime school"!
Thursday November 18th 2010, 8:41 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
I am late, but OK. I just remembered that in the Netherlands a prison is often called a "huis van bewaring" (a house of conservation or something of the kind) but sometimes it seems meant for those whose waiting for punishment...

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