The language of prisons provides a window into an inmate’s world, where they reassert control through slang and use words to hold together a common identity.
A jail is completely isolated from the society that creates it, with severe limits placed on the prisoners’ physical, social and psychological freedoms. One of the few freedoms that they possess is the ability to create a language that describes their experience, which helps them to come to terms with the jail’s denial of self.
For example, in Australian prisons a ‘ramp’ is a search of a prisoner’s cell by the authorities and the cell is called a ‘peter’. A ‘go-slow’ is a punishment cell where time seems to go slowly for the prisoner. These terms are part of prisoners’ special language.
The prisoners own and control this language where they own and control little else. Through language, they can construct a world to replace the one that has imprisoned them and forge a new sense of personal and communal identity.
Prisoners sometimes make lists, and these are passed on to people in the outside world, giving us an insight into this world. Former prisoners sometimes also write books about their prison experiences, which often include glossaries of prison slang.
An important list of such terms was produced at Parramatta Jail in western Sydney in 1972.
This document is now in the public domain via a new volume, and its contents tell us much about life in prison at that time, and about the kind of language that any prison typically generates. It gives an insight into the prisoners’ values, concerns and attitudes.
There are words connected with daily living, such as food, with the uninviting ‘moosh’ (porridge) for breakfast and ‘chew and spew’ for the equally uninviting stew for lunch or dinner. In the tension between prisoners and the prison system, anything provided by the authorities was judged to be second-rate by the prisoners.
“Anyone who betrayed the criminal code was a ‘dog’, the most negative term in the prisoners’ dictionary.”
In 1972, tobacco was an important prison commodity. It took the place of money and was used in bartering. The authorities provided a weekly ration of two ounces of tobacco — called a ‘swy’, a variation of the German word zwei (two) — and since it also came from official prison supplies, this tobacco was regarded as second-rate. It was called ‘boob-tobacco’ (prison tobacco), as distinct from the ‘grouse-weed’ (excellent tobacco) that was illegally obtained from outside.
Alcohol was sometimes illegally distilled in the cells, and this was called ‘lunatic soup’. An alternative alcoholic beverage was ‘musical milk’ — milk laced with methylated spirits.
Prisons are same-sex institutions, and at Parramatta sex between men took place. Most who took part in such activity would have regarded themselves as heterosexual, and the linguistic system provided a way of ‘naturalising’ such sexual relationships.
The ‘hock’ was always the ‘inserting’ partner, whereas the ‘cat’ (an abbreviation of ‘catamite’) was the passive partner. A common rhyming slang term for the ‘cat’ was ‘Ballarat’.
The words are part of the prisoners’ lexicon, and the roles that they designate therefore become accepted within the prisoners’ world.
Prisoners are understandably preoccupied with the length of their sentences.
There is an elaborate slang inventory for prison sentences, from the short ‘bed and breakfast’ (seven days), to ‘clock’ (12 months), ‘brick’ (10 years) — from the pre-decimal currency word for 10 pounds — and finally ‘the lot’ (life imprisonment).
Loyalty to other prisoners was highly valued. A loyal person was ‘solid’, and only such a person was regarded as a true ‘crim’. Anyone who betrayed the criminal code was a ‘dog’, the most negative term in the prisoners’ dictionary.
In 1989, the notorious criminal Ray Denning turned informer and gave evidence for the prosecution at a trial. Someone placed a large bone on the courtroom railing, and an ex-prisoner shouted from the public gallery: “you forgot your lunch, Denning!”
Life in prison is difficult, and the phrase often heard is that someone is ‘doing it hard’ or ‘doing it tough’. Those defeated by the system might become ‘stir-crazy’, which was originally an Americanism, or ‘boob-happy’, the Australian equivalent.
But most survive, and naturally the lexicon has a way of expressing the resulting satisfaction — ‘doing it on your head’ or, more colourfully, ‘doing it on the shit tub’, which refers to the sanitary bucket used in an unsewered cell.
Many of these words provide early evidence about Australian words and meanings, and jailhouse language provides an important contribution to our understanding of the history of Australian English.
The 1972 Parramatta Jail Glossary: An Edition with Commentary edited by Bruce Moore is published by Australian Dictionary Publications.
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