The Prison-House and Language: Modern American Prison Argot
By Patrick Ellis
Although the United Kingdom has the longest history of documenting criminal argots (see Coleman), the United States has produced the most extensive body of literature on the subject of prison argot in the twentieth century. This is attributable to the U.S.’ sizeable, and still growing, incarcerated population, which peaked at over two million prisoners as of 2004 (U.S. Dept. of Justice). Its largest federal prison, Fort Dix, with a population of over 4000, is the size of a small town (U.S. Bureau). The prison documentation trade, almost exclusively devoted to male prisons, might be viewed as one of a number of secondary economic sectors peripheral to the prison industry’s substantial role in the U.S. economy, which employs over half a million workers as of 2000 (U.S. Dept. of Justice). A majority of prisoners have for many years been located in the South and the Southwest, and a higher degree of distinct argot has been cited in these states; correspondingly, much of the work on prisons and prison argot arises from this area (Jackson 49). Argotic terms included in this entry have been drawn from texts sourced from the Papago Unit, Douglas, Arizona (Encinas); Washington State Penitentiary, commonly known as Walla Walla, bordering Oregon (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint); Ramsey Prison Farm in Texas (Jackson); an unnamed facility in Oklahoma (Hensley et al.); and Arizona and Indiana State Prisons (Bentley).
A few definitions, before continuing, are germane. Julie Coleman has provided a valuable delineation of cant, jargon, and slang, wherein slang is defined as the ephemeral terms used by any in-group in order to distinguish them from other groups; jargon is defined as a professional language allowing for precise discussion of topics related to the given vocation; and cant is defined as a language used to obfuscate meaning completely from those not accepted by the in-group, ordinarily for criminal intent (4-5). Coleman does not define argot, the term favored in contemporary prison scholarship to encompass the cant, jargon, and slang found at penal institutions (Einat, Encinas, Hensley et al., etc.). Although this is somewhat unetymological—argot originally referred simply to the language of a brotherhood (Becker-Ho, L’Essence 81)—argot is used here in its inclusive sense.
A further orthodoxy of recent prison scholarship is the use of the “endogenous” and “import” models of prison argot-creation (Einat 311). In the endogenous model, incarceration produces an endemic in-group language amongst its prisoners—and, to a lesser extent, its workers. This generative language has been positioned in contrast to the import model, in which the persecution of certain social groups results in the introduction of specific “underworld” cants and jargons in the prison context. Because many of a prison’s incarcerates are involved, before sentencing, in an underworld with its own slang or cant, combinations between institution-specific and criminal terminologies are frequent, and the simultaneous operation of the endogenous and import models is here taken as a given.
Bearing such distinctions in mind, a trajectory from within prison walls to without is endeavored. Beginning with a brief overview of certain imported slang and cant languages, a taxonomy of common endogenous subject areas—sexual practices, contraband and crime, and institutional processes—for which argot is employed, follows. The jargon of guards is considered, and, finally, the problematic status of prison argot researchers.
Prison argot often varies considerably depending on the given facility’s geographic location and corresponding demographics. Glossaries from the southern states contain many Spanish terms—placa, for guard, is one example (Encinas 83)—while those from the North include many from African American slang (see the use of fish in the subsequent section). Despite such regionalism, there is a lasting and remarkably diffuse presence of certain archaic slang and cant terms, if not entire cant languages, in prison environments across the country. Alice Becker-Ho has traced the roots of the Romany contribution to underworld argot, much of which remains in use in penal environments: shiv, for a makeshift knife, is derived from Romany, as are bing, for prison (distinct from bing for a shot of drugs) (Les Princes 61), racket, in the colloquial and legal sense (Les Princes 114), and nark, which has colluded with narc (from narcotics officer) to mean both an informer, and one who informs about drugs in particular (“nark” OED). Cardozo-Freeman, meanwhile, has established the presence of outmoded English and Australian rhyming slang (referred to as Australian slang by prisoners, but properly an English cant) in contemporary Walla Walla (“Rhyming”), as well as endogenous rhyming cant: Harvard and Yale for jail (Joint 503). This is not to mention the presence of Carnie cant, the secret language native to the American carnival circuit, also called z-Latin, alfalfa, or Ciezarney (amongst other titles). In Carnie, consonants are sporadically followed by the sequence <iez>; so, to use Russell and Murray’s pedantic example, phoneme becomes phiezoniezeme (402). Carnie has been identified in the modern prison environment by both Cardozo-Freeman (Joint 255) and Easto and Truzzi (562). Angloromani can hardly be said to be active in the U.S., and rhyming slang and Carnie’s primes have long passed; their lasting use in prisons is one of many possible testaments to the staying power of import model argots in the relatively closed system of prison life.
Homosexuality in American prisons has been documented thoroughly in the twentieth century (for a literature review, see Hensley et al. 292) and has what is possibly the largest body of prison slang terms surrounding it. Most of the terms may be placed into general categories describing either dominant or submissive roles; or, to put it in the derogatory dichotomy used in prison, pitching or catching. Apart from importing most pejorative terms for homosexuals and homosexual practices active in popular and subcultural use, there are many endogenous terms in this area. The most widespread is punk, used as a noun to mean a submissive homosexual, and a verb for coital relations with a submissive homosexual. It is often found in the phrase a punk in the bunk (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint 523), and is first cited in a memoir of New York State’s Sing Sing prison in 1904 (“punk” n.3 OED). Punk is still in use, cited in every resource the present author has had access to. Punks are usually dominated by wolves, another common term, and the area created between these poles is then ballasted by a general vocabulary including the self-explanatory booty bandit (Encinas 77), flip flop, for bisexuals (Bentley 58), and fish. Fish is an interesting case as historically, and still in certain prisons, it refers exclusively to new prisoners (Encinas 79), whereas in contemporary African American penal contexts it has homosexual connotations (Hensley et al. 297). (This is perhaps due to a coincidence with the non-prison African American slang, starfish, a depreciatory term for homosexuals stemming from its original use as a descriptor for the anus).
The resourcefulness of prisoners’ material inventions (documented at length in Temporary Services’ Prisoners’ Inventions) is paralleled by many neologisms and wide argot for contraband—particularly contraband to be used in illegal activities. There are three basic categories of contraband: practical (harmless) items, drug paraphernalia, and weapons. The most common practical contraband is donuts, a term used to describe the makeshift fuel used for cooking food (or drugs), and so named because donuts are constructed by wrapping toilet paper many times around a hand (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint 493). Further harmless items would include the tat family, derivatives of tattooing that include tat gun, tat man, and tat motor (Bentley 85). (The cant-like properties of tattoo symbology are addressed in Encinas, 40-41.) Drug paraphernalia, because it has a greater need for concealment, often takes the form of cant, as in bing, for a shot of unspecified drugs (Cordozo-Freeman, Joint 482), or binky, for a syringe (Bentley 80). Prisoner inventiveness extends to weapons and their names, as well. Shivs and shanks are both names given to makeshift knives of any variety and one or the other is common to most prison lexicons (Bentley 88; Cordozo-Freeman, Joint 529; Encinas 84). Zip guns, a name for any provisional gun used within and without prison walls, is often shortened to simply zip or Z in the prison environment in effort to conceal meaning (Bentley 89).
Although argot in this area is the most distinct from prison to prison, and there is a higher degree of transience as newly implemented legal arrangements alter the vocabulary, there are nonetheless areas of common use and application. Prison-specific terms include Oregon (or Rindquist) boots, a term for leg irons which, Cardozo-Freeman hypothesizes, receives the place-name after the first institution (Oregon) in which the irons were used (Joint 519). Regional regulations may initiate shorthand jargon for such disciplinary procedures: at the Papago Unit, majors and minors (infraction is implied) suggest the degree of the prisoner’s breach of the rules (Encinas 81). One of the most prevalent areas in the argot of the prison complex’ institutional processes is the (usually deprecating, occasionally affectionate) naming of guards. These range from the personalized parakeet, a nickname for a guard who mimics a superior officer (Jackson 51), to the synecdochic brown shirt, which, of course, refers primarily to Nazis, but has been applied to guards for their similarly drab uniform and perceived oppressive behavior (Bentley 95; Encinas 78).
As remarked upon in the introduction, guards have their own jargon as well; and indeed, on occasion, their own cant (thus far undocumented) which prisoners have drolly designated pigs’ Latin (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint 253). Guard jargon ordinarily denotes in-group status with their fellow workers. The term inmate, for instance, is viewed by prisoners to be a derogatory term used by guards alone (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint 508)—and, for the same reason that the common slang terms bull or screw have not been applied to guards in the present study, inmate has not been applied to prisoners. Inmate is a good indicator of the style of guard jargon, which tends to be governmental and evasive. They may refer to themselves as correction officers working in a correctional facility, and endorse acronyms for the more repugnant features of penal life: IMU (Intensive Management Unit) replaces the citizen solitary confinement and the prisoner hole. Indeed, there have been so many acronyms created for elements and divisions of the prison industry that many of the institutions’ websites include glossaries of their acronyms (see U.S. in the works cited). It should be noted that certain governmental acronyms have been incorporated into the prisoner lexicon as well, although a preliminary survey suggests that they are usually applied as epithets to figures of authority, in a belittling fashion: Justice of the Peace becomes J.P. (Cardozo-Freeman, Joint 508).
The importance of questioning the authenticity and intentions of documenters of prison life and compilers of prison argot word lists cannot be emphasized enough, as they often complicate the act with partisan biases. To wit, the authors are frequently guards, or write with the practical utility of guards in mind. Most prison argot glossaries presently on the Internet are destined for guards. This is the case with most glossaries of argot and cant throughout history—that they are destined for figures of authority to be used against the language’s practitioners—as Coleman’s work demonstrates repeatedly. Such word lists’ accuracy is correspondingly dubious, and sources of this type have been avoided where possible. The vocations of the three principle argot compilers employed throughout are as follows: Cardozo-Freeman is an academic specializing in Hispanic studies, who operated in the “buddy-sociologist” tradition; Encinas is a statistician who was incarcerated; and Bentley and Corbett were prisoners. The latter researchers’ crimes are unimportant in this context, but certainly none of them were writing for guards. Cardozo-Freeman, the most suspect compiler, seems to have had the best intentions; and furthermore, a number of her entries have been verifiable when cross-checked with a memoir published by a Walla Walla prisoner just prior to her research, Carl Harp’s Love and Rage.
The value of the studies that the aforementioned authors (as well as others in the works cited) undertook is immense; all too often, the only encounter citizens have with prison argot is in narrative films and, less so, novels. In such works, the scope of prison argot is often reduced to three or four key terms, some of which may in fact be accurate, but most of which function as window dressing meant to indicate the criminality and intellectual poverty of the speaker. In fact, and as this preliminary taxonomy has endeavored to display, prison argot is remarkably inventive and covers a considerable scope of subjects. Moreover, it is used deliberately and not, as the old canard went, because the speaker could not master the received, guard-sanctioned lexicon. An exchange from Alexander Berkman’s early twentieth century prison memoirs might serve the point and operate as a close. Here, Berkman is reproving an old-timer, Red, for his use of slang. “‘Why, Red, you can talk good English’ […] ‘Why do you use so much slang? It’s rather difficult for me to follow you’” (170). Red responds with a remarkably pointed, etymologically concerned, and self-aware defense:
“I’ll learn you, pard. See, I should have said ‘teach’ you, not ‘learn.’ That’s how they talk in school. Have I been there? Sure, boy. Gone through college. Went through it with a bucket of coal […]. Don’t care for your classic language. I can use it all right, all right. But give me the lingo, every time. You see, pard, I’m no gun; don’t need it in me biz. I’m a yagg [hobo, or safe-cracker] y—a—dougle g, sir, of the honorable clan of yaggmen. Some spell it y—e—double g, but I insist on the a, sir, as grammatically more correct, since the peerless word has no etymologic consanguinity with hen fruit, and should not be confounded by vulgar misspelling.” (170-71)
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