The Ultimate Guide to Prison Slang

Prison Slang – A List of Terms You’ll Hopefully Never Need to Use

When I was sentenced to prison to serve two 15-year sentences (concurrently) for marijuana possession, I had no idea what I was walking into. The only thing I knew about prison was what I had learned in TV and movies. I quickly discovered that a pop culture prison education wasn’t based on any kind of reality. I knew absolutely nothing.

During the four years I was behind bars, I learned that a prison is it’s own community. It has an economy, as well as a social structure and hierarchy. The inmates work full-time jobs so the campus can operate — maintenance, electrical, food service, laundry, lawn care, snow removal, etc…

Prisons also have their own culture, and language is a main part of that. I learned a whole new vocabulary when I was doing time. And those words still occasionally come out of my mouth during conversation more than four years after my release.

That leads me to today’s blog subject — prison slang. Keep reading to find out some of the most common terms heard behind prison walls. Hopefully, these are terms you’ll never need to use. 

In this blog post I will cover the following topics:

  • Inmates have a lot of terms for ‘doing time’
  • Prison slang ‘dictionary’
  • Food terms in prison slang
  • Inmates have a lot of different slang terms for staff members
  • More prison slang

Inmates have a lot of terms for ‘doing time’

You look at time a lot differently when you’re behind bars. In some respects, it dominates everything you do. In other ways, it’s completely ignored. There are a lot of terms in prison for “doing time” or time itself.

For instance, the term “All Day” means a life sentence. While “All Day and a Night” means life without parole. If you’re doing a “bullet,” it means you’re serving a one-year sentence. If you’re doing a “nickel,” that’s five years. While doing a “dime,” that’s a 10-year bid.

I probably should explain that a “bid” is what inmates call a prison sentence. There’s also the saying “first time down,” which means it’s your first time behind bars. 

Prison slang “dictionary”

Inmates also have terms for everyday items. Essentially, it’s their own dictionary for people, places, and things. If someone asks to bum a “bat, rollie, or pinner,” they are asking you for a cigarette.

If someone asks you who your “celly” is, they are asking who lives with you in your cell/room. At the women’s prison where I was incarcerated, there were six of us in one room. So, I had multiple “cellys.” I also had a “bunkie” if I was assigned to a bunk bed.” I always had a “footie,” which was the person assigned to the bed at the foot of my bed. 

We called clothing “khakis” and “grays,” which was just a reference to the color of the prison-issued clothing. Some facilities have “greens,” “oranges,” or “blues.”

Food terms in prison slang

When it comes to food, there are a lot of different terms used in prison life. Inmates who are housed in cells where food is regularly delivered might have a “bean slot,” which is the opening in the cell door big enough for the food tray.

Some prisons call the people who work in the kitchen “brownies,” while every facility refers to the dining hall as the “chow hall” and dinner as “chow.” When you’re at chow, you might be treated to “dinner and a show.” That’s when you’re eating chow at the chow hall (dinner) and you see inmates get into a fight, who are then pepper sprayed by the guards (the show).

Inmates have a lot of different slang terms for staff members

Of course, inmates don’t always refer to the guards and other prison staff members by their names. There are many different terms for the staff, like “white shirts” and “blue shirts,” which refer to an officer and their ranking. A guard that wears a white shirt is the captain, he’s in charge. While the blue shirts are the lower-ranking guards.

A “C.O.” is simply a correctional officer, and inmates will call an untrustworthy prison staff member a “bug.” Many inmates will call a new C.O a “cowboy.” While a “Duck” is a correctional officer who is considered gullible and easily manipulated, and they sometimes reveal personal information about staff members. Ducks can be bribed into smuggling in contraband, which makes them very popular.

A more general term was “the people,” which referred to any and all prison staff. 

More Prison Slang

There’s also different sayings in prison that make their way into regular culture. Inmates were calling something “fire” when it was delicious or amazing years before people were saying it in the free world. If you felt “some type of way,” it meant you weren’t happy. Here are some more terms that I remember:

5150: You’re crazy

Cadillac: There are three meanings for a Cadillac in prison. One meaning is a “Cadillac bed,” which means you got a single bed with no bunk over you. It was the best assignment you could get in a cell.  Another is a “Cadillac job,” which means your job assignment is one of the most sought after and highest paying on campus. The other meaning for Cadillac was a coffee with cream and sugar.

Cage: Your room or cell

Catch a Case: To get charged with a crime

Dry Snitching: To give up information without naming names. Basically, you’re ratting someone out in an indirect way, like talking about an inmate’s behavior loudly in front of guards.

Fish: I was a fish because I was a new inmate who had never been in prison before.

Fresh Meat: A new batch of inmates in the yard.

Gay for the Stay, Straight at the Gate: This is a term for women who get involved in lesbian sexual relationships behind bars, but are “straight” in the free world.

The Goon Squad: A special group of guards who perform shakedowns.

The Hole or The SHU: Solitary confinement

Has the Keys: the person in charge or who controls a group

Hoop: Hiding contraband in your vagina or another body cavity. To “keister” it means to put contraband in your bum. You can also put contraband in your “prison pocket,” which is what female inmates call their vaginas. 

Hoe Check: Beating up an inmate to see if they’ll stand up for themselves.

Kite: A note written on a piece of paper and passed through the prison grounds. Often using underground methods.

Lockdown and Shakedown: A disturbance will cause a lockdown, which means no inmate movement of any kind. Every inmate is in their cell until the threat has passed or calm has been restored. A shakedown often comes with it, which means guards are tearing your cell apart looking for contraband.

Lock in a sock: Inmates can create a deadly weapon by putting a combination lock inside and a sock and swinging it.

O.G: This stands for the old-timers, the “original gangsters.” It’s a term of respect for people who have been in the prison system for years.

PC: If someone “PCs,” that means they’ve requested protective custody. It’s very similar to solitary confinement, as it’s a segregated area of the prison that an inmate is placed in for protection from other inmates.

Programmer: An inmate who is always in classes, basically a prison nerd.

Pruno: Another name for prison wine, or toilet wine. It’s homemade alcohol made with fruit, bread, and anything with sugar. 

Real Talk: An inmate’s way of saying “I’m serious.”

Shiv: a homemade knife

Skittles: medication, pills

Spread: When a group of inmates get together and cook potluck meals in the housing unit with a microwave. Usually includes ramen noodle dishes, chips and dip, and the most creative meals you will ever find. 

Stinger: A rigged heating element

Zoom zooms and Wham whams: Cookies and candies

Have you heard any of these terms used in the free world? Let us know in the comments below.

Sources:

The Real Prison Slang

https://prisonwriters.com/prison-slang/

About the Author Natalie

Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.

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