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Dictionary of Prison Slang
Dictionary of Prison Slang
Published by chunksmediocrites
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Dictionary of Prison Slang
recorded and edited 2001, revised/ re-edited 2007; 2010.

This list was composed in 2001 at Sheridan FCI, a federal medium-security men's prison in Sheridan, Oregon, USA. A number of sources were used, many of which have served decades in prison and had been incarcerated in other state and federal prisons. Some of the words in this list may have been in use outside of prison culture, and now, years later, many more certainly are in regular use. There is a definite overlap of terms and phrases, especially among groups that have a larger percentage chance of being incarcerated in comparison to their representation in general US population- Blacks and Latinos, for example; as well overlap in rap culture and gang culture is common. Some terms may merely be regional, cultural, bureaucratic or military slang unfamiliar to the author, and have origins outside of prison culture.

In reading the list, common themes emerge: violence, power, sex, drugs, degradation, race, status, crime, law, and imprisonment. Some of the terms are shocking and crude, others are wordplay and humorous; the etymology of many are obscure and not known to the author.

It is worth noting that prison culture in a men's prison is a distorted and unbalanced culture with aspects of external society exaggerated to bizarre extremes. A culture of males whose common experience involves having passed through the criminal justice system. These adult males, often with underdeveloped or anti-social coping skills, are required to live in close quarters with each other under controlled conditions. I tend to describe it as living with the worst aspects of junior high, except your peers are all physically adult, bored men and many are prone to violence.

There are debates within prison society regarding some terms and their use. For example, some prefer to be called a prisoner or a convict, rather than an inmate. To these individuals, the term ‘inmate’ implies passivity and acceptance, while ‘convict’ or ‘prisoner’ to them more accurately conveys the condition of captivity, punishment, and an oppositional relationship to imposed authority. They may refer to someone who submits to authority as an inmate, or refer to those who do not as prisoners or convicts.
Others who are incarcerated make no distinction and use these terms interchangeably. The propensity to use one term or another more often indicates how incarcerated individuals wish to be perceived, and may not correspond to actions.

Terms around sexual orientation are also hotly debated. To give some context, it should be noted that there is consensual sex in prison. While rape occurs, it may not be as common as people think considering how often it is depicted in movies, TV shows, and literature. Statistics regarding the rate of rape in prison are also debated. The conditions, security level, design, staffing, and age variances in some prisons can definitely contribute to the level of rape. But back to consensual sex: some of the people who have consensual sex were active homosexuals outside of prison, and a small percentage may have been latent or closeted homosexuals before coming to prison. It is important to note however that the majority of men who engage in sex with other men in prison still self-identify as heterosexuals. There are some common and fallacy-laden debates among prisoners, about what defines homosexuality. Some contend that having sex with another man means you are a homosexual, whether that act is undertaken once or a thousand times. Some contend that as long as you are ‘pitching’ (entering others’ orifices) as opposed to ‘catching’ (having your own orifices entered) that you are not a homosexual.
Some prisoners rationalize that they wouldn’t normally have sex with men, but because they are separated from women for so long, they have lowered their standards. The amount of time these men consider as enough time to make it acceptable to have sex with other men can be as short as a few months, to as long as a life sentence.
The author’s opinion is that the sexuality of some small number of people in prison may be bisexual (an area not well defined or understood by any), and some are homosexual, but the majority of men engaging in intercourse in prison fall under the heading of sexual opportunists. For these men, whatever is available will do. When only men are available, they have sex with men. For some of these individuals, it is (again in the author’s opinion) quite possible that if they were surrounded by farm animals, or produce, they would sexually assault or engage in sex acts with these.
There are some transsexuals in prison, though obviously if you are in a men's prison, the transition to the female gender is incomplete. These individuals are often highly sought after by segments of the prison population, while other segments of the population exhibit repulsion (real or fake) towards them.
Sex in prison, and individuals willing to have sex in prison, generally create a great deal of conflict and drama. Their relationships with boyfriends, competing beaus, domestic squabbles, jealousy, prostitution, and the ever-present specter of rape (as well as actual rape) makes the presence of sexually active prisoners disruptive and problematic for prisoners and staff.

In higher security prisons, prisoners tend to segregate themselves by race into groups. Some of this may reflect the social groups the prisoners associated with outside prison, but much of this has to do with group protection and power. In higher security prisons, the prisoners defend themselves against predation in the case of power struggles or in riots; though this protection may not defend them against predation within their own group. A person without tribal affiliation is more likely to be seen as prey by the predatory. A person with tribal affiliation is protected to a degree by their affiliation, and in turn may be called on to protect others.
This relationship can be detrimental and extremely polarizing, but is the common position of race in the prison system. Most prisoners in higher-security prisons cell with others of their race, and eat in designated sections of the chow hall with others of their race, watch TV in TV rooms segregated by race, and hang out primarily with others of their race. This relationship does not extend to business transactions generally, except when by preference; as well work assignments and sports activities may be extremely mixed.
Some of these groupings have correlations outside prison. Many minority groups have experience in organizing in groups before coming to prison. Many minority group gangs may carry over into the prison system.
White prisoners are today less well organized in prison than other groups. The most organized White organizations are White supremacists and White biker gangs; these groups actively recruit in prison in an attempt to further their own agendas and in an attempt to build some sense of security in an environment where they are on equal footing or a minority themselves.
This racial divide is in part encouraged by the prison staff, and also somewhat required for prisons to function. As one prisoner put it, "If we all went in the chow hall and at every table there was a Black, a Latino, a White, and an Islander or Native American or Asian, the prison would go to lock-down right away. No way could they handle all these groups working together." Prisons require a divided and relatively complacent population to function, as prisoners provide almost all of the labor that keeps the prison functioning.
Racial polarization is less extreme in lower-security prisons. It has also shifted with the drug war, as more unaffiliated and non-career criminals end up in the prisons; their identity around race is often less absolutist, and in low-security prisons the likelihood of riots or power struggles beyond the inter-personal are much lower.

Prisons are fascinating and strange habitats, and the language of prison culture gives some insight into the minds, interactions, and lives lived behind fences, razor wire, guards, and walls.


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By erimir on 04-22-2010, 10:58 PM
Default Re: Dictionary of Prison Slang

I never knew that "Sancho" in the Sublime song Santeria was a prison slang for the replacement guy...
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By Ensign Steve on 04-23-2010, 01:26 AM
Default Re: Dictionary of Prison Slang

Me either, I thought it was his name.
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By parnello on 04-26-2010, 11:33 PM
Default Dictionary of Prison Slang

For me, the fall television season begins tonight with Prison Break.
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