Closed institutions with defined membership – for example schools, universities, the armed services, clubs, gangs – all tend to have special language or jargon that is only understood by insiders. Understanding, and using, these terms correctly is a secret badge proving that the speaker is a genuine member of the group. In a way it’s very tribal. Initiates understand, outsiders don’t.
It’s only to be expected that prisoners also have their own internal language, although sometimes words or phrases pass into everyday usage. Ronnie Barker’s brilliant prison TV series Porridge has much to answer for. Of course, prison argot – like all language codes – does change and evolve. It also reveals regional variations. A very interesting source of further reading about prison slang can be found here. However, a few of the examples listed seem to be either obsolete or else are regional, perhaps from establishments in the south since the author cites HMP Winchester as his main source of information.
Other names for staff are currently also used by inmates: ‘kanga’ (from rhyming slang: kangaroo = screw); ‘penguins’ (from the black and white uniforms of officers) or ‘scoobies’ (rhyming slang: Scooby Doo = screw).
At present, common prison words include ‘pad’ (cell) and ‘pad-mate’ (cell-mate). Years ago, many prisoners would have understood the term ‘peter’ to mean a cell, while rhyming slang produced ‘flowery’ (from ‘flowery dell' = cell). Both seem to be anachronisms. Now we have ‘pad spin’ (a cell search) and ‘padded up’ (sharing a cell).
Serving a prison sentence is, of course, ‘doing time’, 'doing porridge' or often ‘doing bird’ (probably rhyming slang: bird lime = time). There is a wide range of other ‘local’ variations. For example, at one prison a long sentence was routinely described as a ‘lump’, eg: “Billy got a real lump at court this week.” In other establishments it was a ‘stretch’. The years of a sentence can be referred to as ‘sheets’ – “I got six sheets,” (ie six years) or else just by number “I’m doing a six”.
An informer or snitch is always a 'grass' and to inform is to 'grass someone up'. A grass is liable to get a 'serving' (a beating) or 'striped' (cut with a razor). Alternatively he might get 'jugged' (have boiling water mixed with sugar - and sometimes bleach tablets - thrown in his face), although I've only ever seen this happen once.
A prisoner in for a very nasty or extremely vicious offence might be referred to as ‘a right naughty parcel’ as in “That Noodles - he’s a right naughty parcel, he is!” A robber is a 'blagger', while a robbery in which victims are restrained is a 'tie-up'. A firearm can be a 'tool', a 'gat', a 'piece' or a 'strap'.
In all prisons sex offenders are variously known as ‘nonces’, ‘beasts’, ‘animals’, ‘bacons’ or ‘wrong uns’. Going onto a Vulnerable Prisoner (VP) wing is called ‘going on the numbers’ (a reference to Prison Rule 45 - formerly 43 - Removal from Association) or occasionally ‘the cucumbers’.
|Burn... or snout?|
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about what prisoners are called (inmates, cons, offenders). Generally, the preferred term seems to be ‘con’ (from convict). However, terms that inmates use to address each other – particularly younger prisoners – seem to be derived from US or Jamaican gang culture. Although the standard usage is ‘mate’, many younger lads prefer to call each other ‘bro’ (brother), ‘blud’ (blood), ‘cuz’ (cousin) or ‘fam’ (family). These terms seem to originate from either US gangs or from Jamaican patois.
Jamaican influence has also given us ‘waag-waan’ (sometimes ‘waag-gwaan’), patois for ‘what’s going on?’ I’d never heard this phrase before I ended up in a prison in the Midlands where it’s use was widespread among younger inmates.
Other examples of current prison slang include the use of the words ‘safe’ and ‘sound’ as meaning good or OK, as in: “Safe, blud, safe!” (OK mate, good!) One young lad who was serving time for participating in the 2010 riots seemed to have a total vocabulary of one word – “safe”, which he used in response to every question.
On ‘the out’ (the outside world) ex-prisoners can identify each other if they use specific prison slang, even if they’ve never met before. If I hear anyone using the term ‘burn’ I tend to assume that he has served time. We have a shared experience, a common characteristic, even if our lives are otherwise very different. We’re all cons and it’s as difficult to shake off as it is to completely remove a visible scar or a very noticeable tattoo.