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Prison Slang | Terms, Meanings & Popular Phrases

The following list of prison terms have been frequently mentioned in various books about prison, interviews, documentaries, news articles, guidebooks, and reports by correctional officials. If you know of any slang terms not in this list, feel free to contribute in the discussion are below.


Criminological approach, movement, or theory that criticizes and seeks to reduce the use of punitive responses to crime. While the ideal type of abolitionism would seem by definition to be concerned with the abolition of incarceration, abolitionists argue that sanctions must only be avoided as much as possible. Abolitionism emphasizes the inclusion of the offender in conflict resolution processes, such as restorative justice and victim-offender mediation, instead of the exclusion of the offender in resolution processes, such as confinement or incapacitation. Abolitionists argue that punishment is only symbolic of justice, and does not represent adequate social processes that do contribute to justice. In contrast to the top-down form of justice, such as those decisions handed down by the court, abolitionism focuses on the bottom-up processes of justice, such as resolutions constructed directly between those involved in the criminal act, such as the victim, offender, and community. Abolitionism criticizes the language of crime, as well, arguing that because penal intervention stigmatizes, classifies, and labels individuals according the offences they have committed,

By viewing crimes as problematic events, one can provide the opportunity for a solution; In contrast, by viewing crimes as crimes, one can provide little opportunity for a solution except for that already stated as "solving" crime, punishment. At a more basic level, one can correct the behaviour (offence) but one cannot, in a democratic society committed to civil-rights, correct the person (offender). With the term "criminal," therefore, comes the inexorable ideology of traditional crime-prevention strategies.


Another word for "dollar"


Inhaling heroin through a makeshift tube. (UK)


Texas Syndicate slang for a Mexican Mafia member

"Back Door"

Slang for a corrections officer who smuggles in contraband substances in exchange for monetary payment

"Back Door Parole"

To die in prison. i.e. he got the back door parole


Child molesters.

Bag Head

Heroin addict (UK).


A fight to the death, or shoot to kill.


Refers to a cocaine addict


Sex offender


"Baby gangster," or someone who has never shot another person.




Hobbies or activities that kill time or help to whittle away one's prison sentence. For example, sewing, tattoos, drawing, etc..


Crips slang term for Blood members.

"Boned out"

Chickened out.


Booster sessions are encouraged by case managers and treatment providers to be taken by inmates at particular risk to reoffend after release. They are part of a broad risk management strategy that includes the Stages of Change and Relapse Prevention. They are a component of the regular "aftercare" many recently released offenders, especially mentally-disordered offenders, should receive in order to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

"Booty Bandits"

Incarcerated sexual predators who prey on weaker inmates, called "punks."

"Box Cars"

Two consecutive life terms (30-year sentences) (or 25 year sentences before parole eligibility in Canada).



"Break it off"

Hand over your money.


prison slang for a trip to a employment agency or recruiting agency for ex-convicts


Another term for the "county jail."


Correctional staff member, such as a psychiatrist, who is deemed untrustworthy or unreliable. Inmates are cautious of "bugs" and will seldom ever mention other inmates to them.

"Bug Juice"

Term referring to depressant drugs, deleriants, or intoxicants.

"Building Tenders"

Inmates that were selected by guards to assist correctional staff. Tenders were meant to maintain order among the inmate population (often through the use of force), as well as serve as intelligence gatherers. Such people were also called "inmate guards." Up until 1983, building tenders outnumbered and successfully monitored the Texas Syndicate in Texas prisons. However, in 1980, Chief Federal District Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that such a system was unconstitutional, set after the prison lawsuit of Ruiz v. Estelle. Having relied on the system unconditionally for so long, Texas prisons were plunged into a crisis, and two and a half years after the building tender system was abolished, Texas Syndicate membership rose from 56 to 1,400.

"Bumpin' titties"



Hanging one's self


Ambush someone.

"Busted a cap"

Shot at another person.


Fraudulent gang member


Inmate dorm bed or single bunk.


Gang term for prisons


Term meaning "Brother," especially for Raza Unida

Catch cold

To get killed.


Old nostalgic term referring to convicts calling home from prison. i.e.: using a "cell-phone" (calling home)


Term used by the Surenos prison gang to refer to their rivals, the Nortenos or Nuestra Familia.


Texas Syndicate term for Corpus Christi, Texas.


Hispanic gang term for Fighting. Spanish for "Hard hits."


Prison or gang term for Heroin.

"Chocolate Frog"


"Chomo" (or "Cho-Mo")

Child molester


Police officers, or prison guards


Texas Syndicate term for El Paso, Texas.

"Click up"

Gang term referring to getting along well with a homeboy, not looking for trouble.

Clifford Olson

Canadian serial killer and sexual molester who lived in Burnaby, British Columbia (a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia) during the time of his murders. Olson was notorious for taking advantage of the RCMP (which patrols the greater Vancouver area and outlying districts), by negotiating a deal whereby he would receive $10,000 for each body he identified to homicide detectives. The money went to his wife and family, as convicted felons are not allowed to keep it serving their sentence.

Control Units

Control Units are sections of a maximum or supermaximum security facility, and most fully characterize the notion of incapacitative deterrence for the most dangerous and criminally-minded offenders in the prison syste. Control Units operate on a panoptical design; cells are arranged around a central security booth that lies on the ground floor. The booth's vantage point allows the constant observation of all cells at the same time through the use of security cameras and sound systems. Sometimes the security booths have computerized access to detailed case-reports of every prisoner in the unit. Prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, and are allowed 1 hour of exercise in a tightly guarded and controlled exercise yard. For a more detailed account of Control Unit, see the section on supermax prisons.


Crank is one of the many street words for methamphetamine. "Cranking up," however, is a term sometimes used in prison to refer to the administration of a substance by hypodermic needle. The hypodermic needle itself is sometimes called a "spike."


A doctor or physician, someone who diagnoses illness.

Criminogenic Need

An empirically-derived, changeable risk factor present in an offender upon assessment that is used for purposes of risk assessment, prison classification, prison re-classification, parole-risk, treatment, and release. Criminogenic needs are also known as "dynamic needs," and include two types: stable dynamic needs, such as long-standing attitudes conducive to violence, chronic alcoholism, or a sexual preference to small male children, and acute dynamic needs, such as stress, recent divorce, hostility, or acute symptoms of substance abuse.

Criminological Psychology

Custody Rating Scale

Canadian risk scale used by Correctional Services of Canada for purposes of intake assessment and classification to custody and security level. The Custody Rating Scale consists of a variety of empirically-derived risk factors, subdivided into three categories, institutional adjustment, public safety, and escape risk.


Incarcerated sexual predators who prey on weaker inmates, called "punks."

Dancing on the blacktop

Getting stabbed.


Prison slang for "two dollars." Also the name of a mainly-youth Aboriginal prison gang, Deuce, operating in the Canadian Prairies.

Developmental Criminology


Another term for child molester or pedophile.

Differential Association

A learning theory of crime introduced by Edwin Sutherland. Involves the association with peers, social incentives, and role-modelling.


Prison slang for "solitary confinement."

"Doing the Dutch"

Prison term for committing suicide.

The Eagle Has Landed

Heroin  has been successfully smuggled into prison.

Eastern Penitentiary Pennsylvania

Commonly known as "Cherry Hill," Pennsylvania's Eastern Penitentiary was founded in 1829 and was 141 years old when it closed in 1970. As the founding model of the Pennsylvania prison system, Cherry Hill confined inmates to a separate cell, where he or she ate, slept, worked, and repented alone. Religious penance was taught, and the virtues of thinking and acting righteously, forbidding evil thoughts, and praying frequently in their cells. In 1842, Charles Dickens observed prisoners in solitary confinement at Eastern Penitentiary, reflecting upon the inhuman character of the inmates and the paranoia of being constantly under surveillance, in his anti-American novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. (Grass S, 2000. " Narrating the cell: Dickens on the American prisons." Journal of English and Germanic Philology, v.99, no.1)


Prison slang that refers to someone who buys and sells stolen goods


Engaging in homosexual acts with other prisoners (Also known as "Making Tortillas")


Prison slang for trying to manipulate the system in one's favour. For example, enlisting the help of prisoners' rights groups in prison, over-reporting or falsely-reporting institutional assaults and victimizations, etc.


Prison slang referring to the act of repeatedly transferring a "problem-inmate" from facility-to-facility or unit-to-uint as a security precaution. i.e.: he's constantly getting put on the "ghost-train"


Gang headquarters.

"Green Light"

Prison gang term for a contract killing, or "hit."


Prison guards.

"Half a Yard"

Prison slang for "fifty dollars."


Prison slang for a 10 year sentence. A "Hamburger with fries" refers to a 20-year sentence.

"Hooking Up"

Prison term for developing a protective, sexual relationship with another inmate, providing some resistance to the threat of being victimized by continuing rapes with more inmates. These may appear as consenting homosexual relationships to staff, but the "inmate code" often prevents prisoners from telling the truth, or "crying wolf" about their "protectors."


Prison slang for a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Officer


Sex offender

The "Jacket" (and the "Coat")

Slang term referring to an offender who receives an indeterminate sentence. Also known as the "coat."


Derogatory term for anyone who lives across the river Mersey (UK).


Slang term for an ankle bracelet or some other electronic monitoring device worn by an offender leaving prison on probation or parole. In this context, his jewellery is a sort of "get-out-jail" token.


Incarcerated sexual predators who prey on weaker inmates, called "punks."


Prison slang for an inmate in prison who behaves like a guard


Prison slang for "meal-time."

"Killing your number"

Prison slang for serving one's time or getting out on parole.


Prison slang for a contraband letter.

"Kit & Green"

Heroin & Cannabis. (UK)


Slang for a person who sucks up to the police, as in, "humping the officer’s leg" in an attempt to get favors.


Robbery. As in, "I did a lick" (committed a robbery).


A pardon or commutation of sentence.

"Limbo Room"

Prison slang for an area of the prison that is reserved for or encouraging of corporal punishment


Prison slang referring to an inmate who smuggles in and possesses contraband and illicit substances.


A verb referring to the act of smuggling in contraband, like cigarettes, by inserting items into your anus.”

"Making Tortillas"

Engaing in homosexual acts with other prisoners

"Max Out"

Maxing out refers to the practice of releasing or transferring inmates from jail (or from one facility to another) due to overcrowding problems and capacity issues.

"Midnight Express"

Prison slang for an old-fashioned escape attempt


Someone who attacks children

"Not a Scooby"

Don't have a clue. No idea. (UK)

"On the Road"

Slang for being finally out of prison

Pass System

The Pass System is a Canadian program similar to a temporary absence, where inmates are allowed to leave prison, with a correctional staff escort, for humanitarian, health, rehabilitative, or medical reasons. Frequent leaves are granted for family visits, education and employment opportunities, and recreational activities such as sports events. For those serving life in prison for committing murder, they must first be granted permission by Canada's National Parole Board. After an inmate has served six months of his sentence, he or she is eligible to leave on a temporary absence without a correctional escort. The program has a 99% success rate, although the few breaches that have occurred have proven disastrous, including murderer Daniel Gingras's "birthday" pass that allowed him to escape and kill two people.


Slang for police or cops (UK).


One's prison cell (UK)

Phallometric Assessment (Penile Phallometry)

Medical technique used to measure sexual deviant arousal. Consists of applying an elastic band around the subject's penis, and measuring the variation in tumescence, or girth, of the band before and after a series of sexually-deviant and non-sexually deviant stimuli. Stimuli include videos, pictures, or audio recordings of situations depicting varying degrees of deviant content, such as rape scenes, naked children, or violence against females during sexual intercourse.

"Pigeon Drop"

A short-con game, where a mark is persuaded to give up a sum of money in order to get a larger sum of money, when in reality, the mark will never see the additional sum.


Slang term for penis.


Prison slang for throwing or dumping a bucket of excrement on a correctional officer.

"Prison Wolf"

Prison slang for someone sexually-oriented to females on the outside, but becomes sexually-oriented to males on the inside.


Someone suffering from psychopathy. Psychopathy is a classifiable personality disorder endemic to forensic psychology, and is not included in medical practice's mental disorder manual, the DSM-IV. Psychopathy was originally coined by psychologist Harvey Cleckley, in his book the Mask of Sanity. Cleckley described someone who was sane on the outside, but particularly brutal, insensitive, impulsive, manipulative, and socially deviant on the inside. Psychopaths are pathological liars, and strive to manipulate others for personal gain. They do not feel the standard levels of remorse following antisocial hurtful acts. See the Psychopathic Personality Traits Scale (PPTS)

Approximately 25% of the federal inmate population (in Canada) is psychopathic, and approximately 90% of those psychopaths can be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). However, psychopathy differs from APD in that APD mainly involves the more impulsive, behavioural features of the disorder, while psychopathy involves both the behavioural and the cognitive and interpersonal features of the disorder.

The standard mechanism of classifying or measuring psychopathy in individuals today is Canadian researcher Robert Hare's "Psychopathy Checklist Revised" (PCL-R), a dynamic and static risk assessment instrument that is validated across many different cultures, countries, and somewhat between both genders, and consistently predictive of prison misconduct, general recidivism, and violent recidivism. It is also predictive of sexual recidivism, especially when a diagnosis of psychopathy is combined with a positive diagnosis of sexual deviant preference.


Inmates subject to rape, usually white, younger, and more submissive than most inmates.

"Rat Jacket"

Someone wearing a rat jacket is known as an informant.

"Red Eye"

Hard stare.

"Ride with"

Perform favors for a fellow convict, including sexual, in exchange for protection or commissary goods.

"Righteous Weapons"

Slang term for dangerous inmates.

Road Dogs

Inmates who do not declare any gang-affiliations but who buddy-up inside prison for protection.

"Rock Spider"



A recently-admitted inmate who is allowed to show up at reception on his or her own.


To switch from one gang to another


Prison slang for "knife." The actual act of knifing someone is known as a "shiving."


At Corcoran State Prison in California, Correctional Officers who administer mass beatings to newly admitted convicts. At the California Institution for Men at Chino, this group of guards called itself SPONGE, for "Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything."


Slang for a peodophile

"Shower Shark"

Refers to another inmate known to check out other inmates in the shower.



Son of Sam Law

The Son of Sam Law was passed in 1979, following the New York killing spree of .44 caliber-killer David Berkowitz. Because Berkowitz had in been a potential position of profiting from his crimes, the law was passed, diverting funds earned by convicted felons to the victims and the state.

"Slinging rock"

Selling crack cocaine.


Slang for tobacco inside prison.

"Space City"

Texas Syndicate term for Houston, Texas.

"Special Handling Cases"

Special Handling cases are inmates that require special care, usually psychiatric or medical in nature, and that demonstrate to correctional staff that they are dealing with someone who requires additional supervision. Such individuals may be suffering from suicidal thoughts or may have recently experienced severe trauma or a psychotic reaction.

Statutes 17-20-114.5

1995 statutes that deny those prisoners who sue the state many inmate privileges if the action is found to be insubstantial or malicious. Penalties include denying television, radio and entertainment access as well as limiting snacks and cigarettes.

"Street Newspapers"

Gang term for graffiti, a communication device for gang members.

Survival Rates

Statistical term referring to the proportion of ex-convicts who desist from committing a new crime following release from custody.

"Sweet Kid"

Prison slang referring to an inmate who allies with an older, more experienced inmate, possibly for protection or knowledge.

"Taking a nap"

Short jail sentence, usually for gang members.


Term for Heroin addict


Prison slang for an inmate who has died.


Prison slang for "committed suicide." Also known as "dumped" or "knocked off." Someone who has committed suicide is said to have "topped off."


Prison slang for rapist


Veteran gang member.


An inmate who has long since given up on bathing or showering.


Wolfpacks are recent parolees that have been recruited by prison gang members sometime during their incarceration. Once released, they carry out the orders from their imprisoned commanders, who usually instruct them on generating revenue or carrying out contract killings. They are trained in prison by higher-ranking gang members, in vocabulary, symbols, hand-signals, proper dress, as well as how to profit from criminal enterprise.



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