19 Bits of Prison Slang to Know
The big house. The pokey. Going off for a government vacation. Taking a trip to Club Fed. Many euphemisms exist for a state or federal prison stay—and once inside, inmates have to adopt a whole new jargon to navigate incarcerated life. Linguist Julie Coleman told PBS News Hour that prison is virtually ideal for new slang to flourish: People are stuck in one place and talking, often hoping to avoid detection by eavesdropping guards. Devising new twists on language and communication is a necessity. Check out 19 slang terms that make up felonious discourse behind bars.
When a person convicted of a crime first arrives in prison, they’re designated a fish. While it could refer to their fresh status—as in fresh fish—it might also stem from the smelly, cheap ink once used to stamp an inmate’s booking numbers on their uniform.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang dates the term’s published use back to 1933, when the memoir Limey: An Englishman Joins the Gangs by James Spenser was published: “The fish uniform is the pauper’s badge in San Quentin. It is the outward proof that the poor guy who wears it has no friends.”
When someone who is incarcerated has a prohibited item and no place to hide it, they might keister (or keester) it, inserting it into their rear for safe-keeping. Green’s dates it back to 1992.
While one would think a cavity search would negate any keistering, it is possible to shove contraband deep enough to be missed during an inspection. One inmate in Lake County Correctional Facility in Florida managed to keister a cell phone as well as an MP3 player (and headphones), some marijuana, tobacco, and $140 in cash in 2011. Officials became suspicious when they noticed marijuana odor coming from his cell.
When someone hooks up with an imprisoned person’s wife or girlfriend, they’re known as a Jody. The term may have originated with the military, when enlisted men worried that a Jody would sweep their loved ones off their feet while they were away.
Instead of a recreational activity, kite refers to a note passed between people who are incarcerated: “I hear we’re getting a new warden,” one might say. “I’ll fly you a kite.” A kite-box is a kind of suggestions box housed in a prison where messages can be left for staff, which is probably why it’s also known as a snitch box.
5. Ninja Turtles
When correctional officers don riot gear, they have been said by some to bear a fleeting resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
At various times throughout history, shank has been used to describe part of the leg, part of a tobacco pipe, or a portion of a harpoon—and in a 2019 draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was noted as slang for a makeshift knife.
A duck in prison is bound to ruffle some feathers. It typically refers to a corrections officer who sympathizes with and passes along information to imprisoned people.
8. Road Dog
When people who are incarcerated form a tight bond of friendship, they’re considered road dogs. The term can also point to people who have recreational time together or were friends while outside of prison.
9. Buck Fifty
If one person who is incarcerated assaults another with a weapon (like a shank) and creates a huge wound, it’s known as a buck fifty because it might take 150 stitches to close it up.
When people who are imprisoned want to seek retribution against a corrections officer but can’t quite get hold of them, an inmate might resort to gassing, or throwing urine or feces at them from behind bars.
11. Shot Caller
Originally used in the legal field, shot caller took on some ironic new meaning in the prison system: It means an incarcerated person who calls the shots, or hands down the orders, when it comes to underlings.
12. All Day
Caught a life sentence? You’re in prison all day, a term used by those incarcerated in Australia as far back as 1910. If you have a life sentence without parole, you’ve got all day and a night. If you’re only in for a year, then you’re doing a bullet.
13. Porcelain Termite
When a person who is incarcerated gets upset and starts to destroy fixtures like toilets or sinks, they’re dubbed a porcelain termite. The phrase got national recognition with the publication of Pete Earley’s The Hothouse: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison in 1992.
Pruno refers to moonshine made by fermenting bread, water, and fruit or fruit peelings in a bag and then hiding it—sometimes in a toilet. Green’s dates its use as far back as 1918.
No, people who are incarcerated do not have access to automobiles. A car in prison slang refers to a group of imprisoned people who exert heavy influence over various activities. If you’re a fish, you’ll want to see if you can find a car that’s a good fit. But if you hear someone refer to a specific make, a Cadillac, it's referencing a coffee with cream and lots of sugar.
People convicted of a crime who sport orange correctional apparel during processing or while incarcerated are sometimes called pumpkins. If enough of them are together in an intake area, you’ve got a pumpkin patch.
Prison is often home to haggling and bargaining in lieu of cash, so people who are incarcerated have to come up with creative ways to navigate commerce. A two-for-three is an offer to hand over two of something—like a bag of chips—in exchange for three at a date to be determined.
18. Bean Slot
When it’s meal time and you can’t leave your cell, guards may bring your food and deliver it via the bean slot—that mail slot-esque opening that allows a tray to be slipped in and out.
19. Back Door Parole
Back door parole is slang for dying while incarcerated, sometimes with remains buried in prison grounds.