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A guard stands behind bars at the Adjustment Center during a media tour of California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison in California. Picture taken December 2015. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters
A guard stands behind bars at the Adjustment Center during a media tour of California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison in California. Picture taken December 2015. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

How secret languages thrive behind bars

On a now-private Facebook page, a prison guard in Texas casually joked last month about wanting to “gas” prisoners (throw urine or feces at them). Others in Georgia and Missouri posted about putting inmates in “the box” or “the hole” (slang for sending them to disciplinary confinement).

The incident, which was revealed by local journalists, led to prison officials promising disciplinary measures, up to termination, for the guards. But it also provided a rare window into the language that grows behind prisons walls, as well as the prison culture of casual violence — one reason that this vernacular exists.

Prison language, or language created by inmates while incarcerated, has a long and vivid history, and is likely as old as the modern prison itself. It can alternately can be described as prison slang (informal talk), cant (a secret language), or argot (jargon of a certain group).

Julie Coleman, a linguist who has studied 17th century prison dictionaries published in the United Kingdom, known as the birthplace of modern imprisonment, said it makes sense that new communication sprang up in prison.

“It’s quite a fertile place for a language to develop. You’ve got a literally captive audience and a very dense social network,” she said. “People reinforce each other’s language.”

From the beginning, people outside prisons sensationalized the language being created inside. Coleman said the prison slang dictionaries she studied were largely salacious, designed to sell as many copies as possible, and presented as useful tools for ordinary people to understand what criminals, such as street thieves, were secretly saying about them.

Coleman said the idea that people could learn that language “was probably nonsense,” because “the language was quite a fluid thing, and would change all the time.”

Today, prison slang is still being created and used — and still regularly shifting. Some 6.6 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Though that number has fallen in recent years, the U.S. continues to incarcerate more of its population than any country in the world.

Today’s inmates and researchers said their created words and phrases can be used to describe almost anything: crime and contraband, roles and status within the prison, or just the ordinary details of a person’s life. The lingo varies according to the prison’s geographic area and particular demographics. How quickly the words shift depends on the transience of the population.

And prison is one of the few places today that language is actually being created, according to linguist and artist Lena Herzog, who has studied the disappearance of languages around the world. While these languages are “like temporary bubbles,” she said, because they shift so quickly, “they are fascinating because they gives us a picture of the variousness of human minds, how capable it is to redefine things.”

Yet most people on the outside still don’t understand it as a creative and complex example of communication, perhaps because they get their ideas about prison slang from movies or novels. Many people wrongly assume that prison language reflects “the criminality and intellectual poverty of the speaker,” Patrick Ellis wrote in a 2005 publication for the University of Toronto. In fact, he found the opposite was true.

“Prison argot is remarkably inventive and covers a considerable scope of subjects,” he wrote. “Moreover, it is used deliberately and not, as the old canard went, because the speaker could not master the received, guard-sanctioned lexicon.” Indeed, the use of newly created lingo can be a way of avoiding the guards altogether.

Talking in code

In 2006, former inmate Randy Kearse published a book called “Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage,” a dictionary of unique words and phrases he’d collected during his time in prison. When Kearse started the project, he assumed he’d gather about a thousand terms. In the end, he had some 10,000 entries. Kearse said his motivation to publish the book was to both correct and expand how people perceived street and/or prison slang, which share many similarities.

“I decided to write a book because at that point, in the mid-’90s, hip-hop and street culture was so dominant in mainstream media, it had crossed over, and certain words would be picked up and repeated through marketing,” he said. “And I was like, there’s much more to the street language than what you might hear in the media and records. So I thought society or the mainstream needs to know this is a real language and the way we communicate.”

Among his entries: “kick rocks” means to “dismiss”; “busted” means “moneyless”; “assed out” means “in trouble,” and “peoplez” indicates your loved ones.

Language is created for many reasons within prison, Kearse said, but one important reason is to “fool the guards,” or to keep them from knowing what’s going on among inmates. Sometimes, this can be a humorous pursuit. Other times, it’s a matter of life or death.

Kearse sees parallels with the slave trade. Black people “had to talk amongst themselves to keep slave masters from knowing that they knew English, and keep masters from knowing that they were communicating among themselves,” he said. “So you talk in code.”

That code can be just as imperative in prison, where mistreatment and abuse of inmates have a long and well-documented history. Sometimes, evasion is required for the simplest of the reasons, said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, a grassroots group run by formerly incarcerated people, and who was formerly incarcerated himself.

“It might be about getting a magazine or a soup because the rules and regulations are so oppressive,” said Reilly. “Personally, I’ve gone to the hole for getting a somebody a soup.”

While in prison, Reilly said, he noticed something interesting: English-speaking guards were more paranoid about Spanish-speaking inmates because they couldn’t understand what was being said. They would worry that these inmates were talking about something dangerous, such as a drug deal, when Reilly said instead people were usually discussing something completely mundane, like their sister’s upcoming wedding, or a new music album. Talking in slang or another language is often done simply to protect a person’s privacy, he added, something not often available in prison.

“Just because we’re talking about things people don’t understand, doesn’t mean I’m talking about you or up to no good,” Reilly said. “All we’ve got is telling our stories.”

‘The funny guy will go a long way’

In the 1970s, Washington State Penitentiary superintendent and sociologist Robert A. Freeman found something surprising when collecting slang expressions used by inmates: many of the created phrases rhymed with their meaning. “Ripsy rousers,” for example, was the phrase for trousers, while “two by four” meant door.

According to Julian Franklyn’s “A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang,” published in 1960, rhyming slang words such as these can be traced back to the banter between cockney laborers and Irishmen in the 19th century. Franklyn writes that it would start with “the Irishman telling long, tall stories, of which he is the hero,” and then “the Cockney ‘capping’ them with brisk comment, and the assumption of metropolitan superiority.” Like any good banter, it was playful, intelligent and witty. And it often reflected a jockeying of roles.

Today, Reilly said, that same dynamic exists in communication among inmates, and sometimes guards too, many of whom learn the language.

“The funny guy will go a long way in prison,” Reilly said. “Words are your cachet in some sense.”

Both he and Kearse described prison language as an extension of hip-hop, sharing some of the same words and being similarly stylized and creative. “It’s that same spirit, same desire to play with words,” said Reilly. “There’s so much creativity in there, and wit.”

He cited the Tupac Shakur’s album “Me Against the World,” which the rapper wrote from prison.

“Being creative is one thing that oppressed people have done throughout history, whether it’s a creative way to get food, or just to express oneself,” Reilly said.

A changing conversation

Today, the global prison population continues to grow, with more than 10.5 million people in penal institutions around the world, according to a 2016 report by the Institute for Criminal Research Policy at Birkbeck, University of London. At the same time, the prison reform movement has gained steam, along with public awareness of inhumane conditions in prison, including violence, sexual abuse, overcrowding, lack of adequate medical care, and more.

Meanwhile, researchers appear to be making a greater effort to hear directly from inmates about languages created and used within prisons. For example, a 2018 study from Poland used online prison glossaries, published by both former inmates and correctional officers, as its data set. The study’s conclusion? Prison slang may be concise, but it is often rich in meaning.

Dictionaries such as these are becoming more common; in 2015, for example, prisoners at the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Corrections Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, created a dictionary of the slang specific to their institution.

In a 2010 study of HM Prison Winchester in the U.K., researchers staged a conversation directly with six prisoners, two officers and a university professor, in which the prisoners were asked for their observations about prison language. In that discussion, inmates pushed back on a number of researchers’ prior findings about prison lingo, such as that it was key to avoiding violence behind bars. Like Reilly and Kearse, these inmates argued that it was more about wit and expression.

Perhaps the most wide-reaching window into prison life today is the popular podcast, “Ear Hustle,” which is created by former and current inmates of San Quentin State Prison in California. The show depicts what prison is really like for those on the inside, for those on the outside. The podcast’s name comes from prison slang for “eavesdropping,” or being nosy. Except in this case, it’s a welcome thing.

Kearse, who was released from prison in 2005, said that despite how quickly prison language can shift, “God forbid, if I was to go back today, I wouldn’t be lost” in understanding it. What’s changed instead, Kearse said, is the wider discussion around prisons.

“When I was in prison there was no talk of criminal justice reform, no focus on rehabilitation, reentry, anything like that. Over the last 10 years there’s been a shift at how people look at criminal justice and mass incarceration,” and at the prisoners themselves, Kearse said.

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