When I was serving two (simultaneous) 15-year sentences for marijuana possession, I had no idea what I was walking into. The only thing I know about prisons is what I learn from TV and movies. I quickly discovered that pop culture prison education is not based in any reality. I don’t know anything.
During my four years behind bars, I’ve learned that prisons are their own communities. It has an economy, but it also has social structures and hierarchies. Inmates work full-time jobs so the campus can run – maintenance, electrical, food service, laundry, lawn care, snow removal, etc…
Prisons also have their own culture, and language is a major part of it. I learned a whole new vocabulary while doing time. And in conversations more than four years after I got out of prison, those words still come out of my mouth now and then.
Which leads me to the topic of my blog today – prison slang. Read on to find out some of the most common terms heard behind prison walls. Hopefully these are terms you never need to use.
In this blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:
- Prisoners have a lot of jargon about ‘doing time’
- A “dictionary” of prison slang
- food terms in prison slang
- Prisoners have many different slang words for staff
- more prison slang
Prisoners have a lot of jargon about ‘doing time’
You look at time very differently when you’re behind bars. In some ways, it governs everything you do. In other respects it is completely ignored. There are a lot of terms in prison for “doing time” or time itself.
For example, the term “All Day” means life imprisonment. And “All Day and a Night” means life without parole. If you’re doing “bullet” it means you’re serving a year in prison. If you’re doing “nickel,” that’s five years. That’s the bid for 10 years when doing Dime.
I should probably explain that “bid” is what prisoners call incarceration. There is also a saying “first time down”, which means that this is your first time in prison.
Prison slang “dictionary”
Prisoners also have provisions for daily necessities. Essentially, it’s a dictionary of their own people, places and things. If someone asks for “bat, rollie, or pinner,” they’re asking you for cigarettes.
If someone asks you who your “celly” is, they are asking who lives with you in your cell/room. In the women’s prison where I was held, there were six of us in one room. So, I have multiple “cellys”. If I was assigned a bunk bed, I also had a “bunk bed”. ’ I always have a “footie,” which is the person assigned to the foot of my bed.
We call the clothing “khaki” and “gray,” which simply refers to the colors issued by the prison. Some facilities are available in “Green”, “Orange” or “Blue”.
food terms in prison slang
There are many different terms used in prison life when it comes to food. Prisoners housed in cells where food was provided on a regular basis may have a “bean trough,” which is an opening in the cell door large enough to hold food trays.
Some prisons refer to the people who work in the kitchen as “brownies”, while every prison refers to the dining room as “chow hall” and the dinner as “chow”. When you’re at chow, you’re likely to be treated to a “dinner and show.” That’s when you’re eating in the cafeteria (dinner) and you see the prisoners fight and then the guards spray pepper on them (the show).
Prisoners have many different slang words for staff
Of course, prisoners don’t always call guards and other prison staff by first names. There are many different terms for staff, such as “white shirt” and “blue shirt,” referring to officers and their ranks. A guard in a white shirt is the captain and he is in charge. The blue shirts are lower-level guards.
The “CO” is just a correctional officer, and prisoners will call untrustworthy prison staff “bugs.” Many inmates will refer to the new CO as “The Cowboy”. And “ducks,” correctional officers who are considered gullible and easily manipulated, sometimes reveal personal information about staff members. Ducks can be bribed and smuggled, making them popular.
A more general term is “the people”, referring to all prison staff.
more prison slang
There are also different sayings in prisons that enter the regular culture. Years before people said it in the free world, prisoners would call it “fire” when it was delicious or amazing. If you feel “a certain way,” you are unhappy. Here are some more terms that I remember:
5150: you are crazy
Cadillac: Cadillac in prison has 3 meanings. One means “Cadillac bed”, meaning you have a single bed without the bunk beds. This is the best mission you can get in a cell. The other is a “Cadillac job,” which means your job assignment is one of the most sought after and highest paying jobs on campus. Another meaning of Cadillac is coffee with cream and sugar.
cage: your room or cell
Catch a Case: Accused of a crime
Dry Snitching: Ditching information without naming names. Basically, you are criticizing someone in an indirect way, such as talking out loud about an inmate’s behavior in front of guards.
Fish: I am a fish because I am a new inmate who has never been to prison.
Fresh Meat: A new batch of prisoners in the yard.
Gay for the Stay, Straight at the Gate: This term refers to women who get involved in lesbian sex in prison but are “straight” in the free world.
The Goon Squad: A special group of guards who conduct probing.
The Hole or The SHU: Solitary Confinement
Possesses the key: the person in charge or who controls the team
Hoop: Concealing contraband in the vagina or other body cavity. “Keister” means to put contraband in your ass. You can also keep contraband in your “prison pocket,” as female inmates call their vaginas.
Hoe Check: Beat up prisoners to see if they will stand up for themselves.
Kite: A note written on a piece of paper and flown across the prison grounds. Often underground methods are used.
Lockdown and Shakedown: Disturbances cause a lockdown, meaning no prisoner of any kind can move. Each prisoner remains in their cell until the threat passes or calm is restored. Settlement often follows, which means guards are tearing apart your cell for contraband.
Lock in a Sock: Prisoners can create deadly weapons by placing a combination lock and a sock inside and swinging it.
OG: This stands for old-timers, the “Original Gangster”. It’s a tribute to someone who’s been in the prison system for years.
PCs: If someone is a “PCs,” it means they have requested protective custody. It is very similar to solitary confinement in that it is an isolated area of a prison where prisoners are housed to protect other prisoners.
Programmer: An inmate who is always in class and basically a prison nerd.
Pruno: Another name for prison wine or toilet wine. It’s homemade liquor made with fruit, bread, and anything sugary.
Real Talk: Ways Prisoners Say “I’m Serious.”
Shiv: A homemade knife
Eat, Drink, and Play: Drugs, Pills
Spread: When a group of inmates get together and cook a potluck in the dorm using the microwave. It usually includes ramen noodles, chips and dips, and the most creative meals you can find.
Stinger: Assembled heating element
Zoom zooms and Wham whams: cookies and candy
Have you heard these terms used in the free world? Let us know in the comments below.