By Elena Stevens
11th grade, Piedmont High School, CA

With lines from “Criminal Justice or Criminal Injustice? The Power of Language” by Meera Santhanam, a Pulitzer Center reporting project

Every individual is
defined, labeled
External opinions are jars with lids
Trapping, pinning
We are slammed into file folders
Shut into boxes
Tucked neatly within the parameters set by society.

For most
Being defined isn’t necessarily a negative thing
For most
A single moment doesn’t imprison us
For most
We are defined by a collection of our bests and worsts
Of our ups and downs
Highs and lows.
For most
Our definition is infinitely evolving
Like a river flows and ebbs
Like a compilation that

But for some
The tape is caught on a glitch
The rewind button gets stuck, won’t budge
The option of a reset out of reach.
One moment is all they get.

“Inmate” or “incarcerated person”
“Prison” or “human cage”
“Reform” or “reimagine”
Each word a powerful reminder of the person held captive
Tied to a label for life.
Each label intrinsically tied to notions of power
Who has it
Who doesn’t
Who should.

We are harming each other in small ways all the time
Being harmed in small ways all the time
The sorting of the condemned is subjective
What determines the
Altering of human worth?

There are words that say
We are giving up on you
We are sending you away
Stamped an outcast forever
Something of a scarlet letter

Language matters
Every ounce of word we breathe
a pound of force behind it
Delicately selected and carefully pruned
Or snatched off a branch and shoved out the mouth

We choose each word we speak
They are freedom
They are prison

The choice is ours.

Elena Stevens is a rising senior at Piedmont High School in Piedmont, California. In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, playing volleyball, and catching sunsets with friends. She finds poetry comforting, a medium to express herself in this often overwhelming world. As an avid reader and writer, she was inspired to write this poem as it examined how words can be cages, while simultaneously tapping into the legal system.

Read more winning entries from the 2023 Fighting Words Poetry Contest.