Prison slang is an argot used primarily by criminals and detainees in correctional institutions. It is a form of anti-language. Many of the terms deal with criminal behavior, incarcerated life, legal cases, street life, and different types of inmates. Prison slang has existed as long as there have been crime and prisons; in Charles Dickens' time it was known as "thieves' cant". Words from prison slang often eventually migrate into common usage, such as "snitch", "ducking", and "narc".
Prison slang, like other types of slang and dialects, varies by region. For that reason, the origins and the movement of prison slang across prisons are of interest to many linguists and cultural anthropologists.
Some prison slang are quite old. For example, "to cart", meaning to transfer to another prison, has been in use in Glasgow since 1733.
A two-year study was done by Bert Little, Ph.D. on American English slang with the main focus being in the coastal plain region of the Southeast U.S. His study published by The Trustees of Indiana University on behalf of the Anthropological Linguistics journal goes on to provide an extensive glossary of common prison slang terms that he found circling through the prison systems. Studies by Alicja Dziedzic-Rawska from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland describe prison slang as "extremely rich and creative" with new words being formed on a daily basis. These are mainly used as a means of security against unauthorized parties receiving a certain message and, in some cases, can be a way to ensure a prison inmate's survival within the cells.
|Bagman||Someone who is in possession of drugs|
|Bang||A drug injection (other terms include 'fix', 'hit' or 'shot')|
|Chester||Slang term for an inmate incarcerated for child molestation|
|Chomo||Another slang term for an inmate incarcerated for child molestation|
|Green||A term for paper money|
|Iced||A term for killing another inmate or prison guard|
|In the hole||When an inmate is separated from the other inmates by the authorities in a separate, isolated unit|
|Longjohn/Jody||A person who is not incarcerated and is having sexual relations with an inmate's wife|
|Rat||An Informant (an inmate who informs prison officials of any illicit activity within the prison system including prisoners and guards)|
|Shank/Shiv||An improvised stabbing weapon|
|Snuffed||A term for anyone who has been murdered|
|Seg||A term meaning solitary confinement (from the official term "administrative segregation")|
|C.O./D.O.||Correctional Officer/Detention Officer|
|Nerk/nirk||Stupid/unpleasant person/inmate. Term of abuse used to the face.|
|Nonce||A person in prison for offences against children. Originally a 19th century acronym for Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise, denoting prisoners that that to be segregated from the general prison populace for their own protection.|
|Pompey||Northern England slang for a prison, possibly originating from a notorious prison ship named Pompee, that was anchored in Portsmouth Harbour in the early nineteenth century.|
|Porridge||One time main meal (alleged) used as term for doing a prison sentence. Popularised by the popular BBC series "Porridge" – which in turn popularized many prison slang words.|
|Screw||Prison Officer – probably originating from a Victorian form of punishment involving a wheel to be turned on which a screw could be turned to make it more or less difficult. Possibly also from the pattern of walking to the end of a row of cells, turning, and walking back, constantly rotating like a screw|
|Squealer, Rat, Grass||Anyone who gives information to another group – primarily to the prison authorities.|
|Bang||A drug injection (other terms include 'fix', 'hit' or 'shot').|
|The boneyard||Protective custody|
|Cockatoo||An inmate tasked with alerting other inmates that prison officers are approaching|
|The pound||Solitary confinement|
|Red light||'Red light' is the code-word used by inmates to warn that prison officers are approaching|
|Screw||Pejorative term for prison officer|
|Scrim||Pejorative term for inmates who work in clerical positions within the prison. Portmanteau of 'Screw' and 'Crim'.|
|Shiv||Makeshift stabbing weapon|
|Spinner||An inmate acting strangely, highly associated with mental health issues|
|Sweeper||An inmate paid by the prison to do domestic duties|
|Turtles||The Squad. Specially trained and heavily equipped prison officers tasked with searching cells and riot control|
|Uncle Bully||An inmate convicted of child sex offences; a reference to a character from the film Once Were Warriors.|
- Mayr, A. 2012. Prison Language. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.
- Little, Bert (Summer 1982). "Prison Lingo: A Style of American English Slang". Anthropological Linguistics. 24: 206–244. JSTOR 30027838.
- Dziedzic-Rawska, Alicja (2016-07-27). "Linguistic creativity in American prison settings". Lublin Studies in Modern Languages and Literature. 40 (1): 81. ISSN 0137-4699.
- Devlin, Angela (1996). Prison Patter: A Dictionary of Prison Words and Slang. Waterside Press. ISBN 9781872870410.
- "Why is Portsmouth called Pompey?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on March 11, 2019.
- Hildebrand, Joe (April 28, 2017). "Your complete guide to prison slang". News.com.au. Archived from the original on March 11, 2019.
|Look up Appendix:U.S. prison slang in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
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