“If you loan me your car, I’ll put some gas in it.” This statement sounds typical, maybe from a teenager asking to borrow their parent’s car for a Saturday night date. But in prison, the sentiment is expressed this way: “If you’ll loan me your radio, I’ll put some new batteries in it.”
With over 2 million Americans incarcerated, “prison-ese,” or prison slang, is a dialect of American English spoken in our nation’s prisons.
Hollywood has acquainted most people with the familiar and now-dated terms of “big house,” “screw” and “turnkey,” but have you ever heard of “bo-bos,” “baby life” or “moonrocks”? Have you ever visited a “bug doctor”?
Incarcerated people are inventive and creative in devising new terms for the everyday. “Bo-bos” are prison-issued sneakers. Most people avoid wearing these at all costs. Not only are they uncomfortable, but they signify that the wearer may be broke or a “state baby,” a term not to be confused with a “baby life,” which is a 10-years-to-life sentence.
“Moonrocks” are meatballs, usually made from ground turkey. They aren’t the only food with a unique name in prison. Care for some “sewer trout”? That’s fried fish, usually pollock, served in the “ptomaine domain,” or chow hall. How about a piece of “barnyard queen,” or chicken? Or you might want to make an “S.O.S.” which calls for some chicken gravy on toast or a biscuit and stands for “shit on a shingle.”
Coming into prison, you’ll be a “fish,” or a new guy. You’ll need to pick up the slang quickly and get used to being “bagged and tagged,” or counted multiple times daily. You will be seen upon entry by a “bug doctor,” or a mental health professional.
Respect is “primo,” or highly valued among inmates. Personal hygiene is expected, so some will be told that “the water is free” (i.e., they should go take a shower). There is often a communal restroom, so courtesy demands one “play power and give it a royal flush” after each use.
Every day in prison is nearly the same, so you know “what time it is,” “what’s kickin’,” or what’s “up,” “hangin’,” “shakin’” and “happenin’.”
People who find themselves incarcerated learn quickly how to “carry it,” or develop a reputation. Some sadly become “canteen babies,” constantly asking others to buy them items at the canteen, while still others will “check-off” or “check-out,” leaving the yard or regular prison population, and go to the “honeycomb hideout” or “hole,” which is segregation.
Prison can “try” or test a person, and one learns quickly: not to “snitch,” or tell on another; “handle business,” or tend to one’s own affairs; “fly a kite,” or send messages to other inmates; and be “straight up,” or honest.
If a person starts “slippin’ and slidin,” or being elusive, the “white shirts,” or prison administration, may let you “smell some gas,” and send you to another prison.
Serving time can find you “greened-up,” or promoted to minimum custody, as well as “browned-down,” or demoted to maximum custody.
Those prone to complain will often be told to “leave something for the baby to do.” Of course, a person could have a reason to complain if they are serving a “lightbulb,” or a 20-year-to-life sentence.
Still, no one likes listening to constant whining, so don’t be surprised to hear a person told to “let their clutch out,” “kick rocks,” “burn the road up,” “suitcase it” or “beat feet,” all meaning they best move along before someone decides to “get it like Tyson,” or start a fight.
It’s not all fighting in prison. A person can make good friends, but a lot depends on one’s “game face,” or impression. Finding another to “have your back,” or support you, is no easy task.
Of course, making friends has a downside because incarcerated people are constantly subject to transfers — a.k.a. “diesel therapy” or a “carbon monoxide high” that can leave you “looking like Lassie,” or missing your friend.
Always try to avoid the “time stretchers,” those who usually have a short sentence and an attitude problem and will provoke others serving longer terms. Also avoid getting caught up with “sharks” or loan sharks.
One can always develop a “hustle,” or prison job, to get by. A person can “maytag” by washing clothes, “hawk” by being a lookout, or even “fly when someone buys” by going to the canteen to make another’s purchases for a tip.
If you’re fortunate, you may get a “slip,” meaning someone has left money “on your books,” deposited in your inmate trust account. You might also be lucky enough to get a “VI,” or a visit, and it could be “Mother’s Day,” a visit from a wife or girlfriend (hopefully not both at the same time).
However good your fortune may be, don’t go around “shooting boosters” and “woofin’,” or bragging on your ability to do anything. Eventually, somebody will “buy your woof ticket” and make you prove your worth.
The day will finally arrive when you’re “carried to the door” and released from “the big house” or “gun camp.”
Just remember: If you do get in trouble, “they’ll leave the light on for you,” just like the line in that Motel 6 ad. That is to say, prisons always have a bed available. So get out and stay out.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.