Beware of labels

Recently I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a friend of some 20 years.  Tyrone Werts is a wise man, a leader, an inspiration to many, who has spent years organizing and helping to sustain others.  He has long been actively engaged in efforts to reduce violence in society.

Tyrone Werts, early 1990s

His picture is on the front cover of my book “Doing Life”  because he has been serving a life sentence – in Pennsylvania, this means life without possibility of parole.

On several occasions, I’ve had prison officers comment that if he were outside, with his relational and leadership skills, he would be CEO of a company. For years he served as president of the lifer’s organization in Graterford prison.

Then, by some miracle (and lots of support from key community figures), after 37 years in prison, Tyrone’s sentence was commuted and he was released last year.  This is an exceedingly rare occurrence in Pennsylvania

Tyrone Werts 2012

What must it be like to be free after 37 years inside?  Tyrone says that he hasn’t had an unhappy day since he got out.  He is working part time as a consultant for the public defender’s office, part time with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University that brings college students into prison to study together with prisoners.  He has a nice car.  He looks great.  He is on email.  He skypes. He says the weirdest part is being with friends like me who he only knew on the inside.

Tyrone met me at a judges’ conference in Philadelphia where I had just spoken and he seemed to fit right in. He then took me to a conference where we were on a panel together.  He seemed to know everyone and the people he didn’t know, he reached out to.  He laughed when I told him he had the same relational skills and style outside that I had observed inside the walls.

Reflecting back, Tyrone commented that when he was convicted, he was considered a sociopath.  What a sobering reminder of the dangers of labels and stereotypes.

I look forward to the time when he is free to travel and he will be available as a speaker for other communities.  He has so much to offer.

Podcast interview with Tyrone here.

9 comments on “Beware of labels”

  1. Charito Calvachi-Mateyko says:

    Yes, labels, as lenguage, are power. That is why, even it takes me longer to say, and in honor of a person that is still inside the walls of a prison, I am using ” the person who was harmed” or “the person who harmed others” instead of the V or O words, respectively. The word “person” remain us that it is a human being we are talking about, and secondly, that this is a temporary situation.
    Tyrone Werts encarnates this dignity and the reality that our actions do not define us, but what defines us is how we choose to respond to our actions.
    His photograph in your book and here, Howard, makes justice to Tyrone’s great spirit.

  2. I often do not get to hear of such wonderful freedom heppening in our country where many presume freedom and take it for granted. I am so grateful that your friend is home and that he is happy everyday. Labels are the convenice we use todehumanize others, and we must reject their use and substitute cherishing the complexities of human beings and our many opportunties to truly know another.

  3. Dear Howard,
    Thank you for your teaching. What a beautiful story and thanks for welcoming this amazing person into our community. 37 years is a long time. Welcome Tyrone. I am so happy for Tyrone and for you, Howard to see your friend out of prison. When our collective wisdom is engaged, miracles happen. The practices we have in RJ allows such space for collective wisdom and beauty to move us as we grapple with wrongdoing. I am grateful to be a part of this growing community to recognize that no human being is unimportant to our collective wellbeing. I am so happy for Tyrone’s family and friends as they get to enjoy being close to him.

  4. Alexis Bullocks says:

    Labeling is a major issue in our society. Society labels individuals and have that stereotype of them and don’t understand people can change, exceed and excel their thoughts. Mr. Tyrone Werts is a prime example. He was in prison for such a long time but he was a mentor and he changed his life in prison and continued to grow when he was released. I commend Mr. Werts and welcome him back!

  5. Leon Jones says:

    The story of Tyrone Werts is one of perseverance against the odds. According to the Labeling Theory, once labeled by society the person accepts the label and reenacts its characteristics. Mr. Werts is a great example perception is not the reality. He brings hope not only to ex-cons and prisoners, but all who have been pigeonhole by society standards. Mr. Werts is a living inspiration.

  6. Esther Borrego says:

    Although labeled as a convicted offender, Mr. Wertz has taken his situation and raised himself up above the labeling and taken it upon himself to actively participate in a restorative justice lifestyle. The life and actions of Tyrone Werts is a perfect example of the positive outcomes of restorative justice, and the ability of human beings to step past such harsh labels and transform their lives into positive examples for others to live by. I commend him for his contributions to our society, and hope that his positive outcome will serve as an example to the criminal justice system and those who implement a process of punishment without care for victims and offenders.

  7. Jeff says:

    Looks like this man was a victim of the Labeling Theory. In today’s society if you commit a criminal act you are automatically labeled as a criminal. This makes it hard for average citizens who committed one mistake in their lives to receive a job because they have to mark on their application that they were convicted of a crime which most likely happened years ago. Glad to see this man back on his feet.

  8. Lisa Cavanaugh says:


    Thank you for your post on Tyrone Werts. I am so happy that restorative justice exists because the criminal justice system does not give individuals with criminal records an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others because they are considered not to be worthy due to the person’s past label of “convict.” I have always argued that just because someone made bad decisions in his or her life does not mean that they are any less qualified to work in the criminal justice system but perhaps more qualified because they have real life experience, wisdom to back them, answers to our questions, and a better chance of preventing crime because the person has been there and done that. Nothing compares to life experience because it provides something that a book cannot.

    Tyrone is also an inspiration to other people who have made bad decisions because he is living proof that there is life after incarceration. He has defied the label that was put on him and so can others. Many people look at people in prison and automatically dehumanize them which is why we need success stories like Tyrone’s. Tyrone has taken his experiences and done more with his life than many people in society who feel they are better individuals because they have never been on the wrong side of the law. What society fails to see is that people who are incarcerated for their bad decisions are still human beings and are still capable of being productive members of society. Thank you for introducing us to restorative justice.

  9. Jeanette A. says:

    Good for him, and the society. This man has served time..a very long time. Time long enough to make someone better or worse. This man seems to have remained strong and society has accepted him back. For others the case may be different but i think that the purpose of Restorative Justice seeks this ending result in which satisfaction is reached on all ends.

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