Prison Lingo

Every culture has a language unto itself, phrases or words that mean something completely different because of where they are spoken.

Prison is one of those places. The world on the inside has a culture and language driven by life in confined spaces, honed by decades of control and restricted freedoms. I’ve mentioned before that time seems to stand still in prison, frozen at the moment the gates closed behind the convict. There are piles of literature on the subject. Prisonization curves, gang dynamics and the rejection of social norms – all very heady sciencey stuff. I even did my graduate work on the subject.

courtesy of

courtesy of

But, the language and the use of prison jargon, gets confusing for those on the outside of the system. Let me give you an example, from a real life situation I dealt with in prison.  I got a frantic phone call from a prisoner’s mother. As a Correctional Counselor, back then, it was a routine part of the job. The call went something like this:

Mom: My Stanley’s in danger because of you.

Me: How’s that?

Mom: You know what Stanley went to prison for.

Me: Yeah, I do. First Degree Murder and Rape. (Little Stanley was doing 25 years to life)

Mom: You’re making him run on the yard with a jacket.

Me: Huh? (I’m certain I was more eloquent, back then)

Mom: The jackets, the ones with the “R” sewn on them. You make him run on the yard with that jacket, telling all the other prisoners that he’s a sex offender. (Not to mention a murderer, mom)

Me: No one is making Stanley run around on the yard. (I didn’t mention that if Stanley was actually running around on the yard, one of the yard gunners would have put him down)

Mom: But that jacket? Why do you make him wear that? It’s like he’s a Jew on display for the Nazis.

Here is where the prison culture and jargon kicks in. Let me help translate Mom’s concerns for her  nefarious little offspring. There are a couple of prison lingo items that Stanley might have passed on during a visit or phone call.

R: Sex offenders were given Restricted custody, limiting the areas where they could work, or have access to in the prison. The restriction was noted as a suffix to the inmate’s custody designation. In Stanley’s case, it would have looked something like Close BR, the “R” for restricted because of his sex offense history.

Jacket: The term Jacket is old prison slang for the inmate’s central file. The “R” suffix is noted on documents in this file, or jacket, hence an “R” on the Jacket. Not a literal jacket little Stanley would wear.

Run on the yard: What Stanley probably said was “I’m getting run off the yard.” Off, meaning the general population inmates didn’t want him on the yard, or he was being pressured to align with a prison gang.

Nazis: This one, Mom got almost right. The Ayran Brotherhood is a prison gang that follows Nazi traditions of racial intolerance and white pride to extremes. Sex offenders, particularly child sex offenders are on the bottom rung of the prison social ladder. The A.B. would occasionally, “clean the yard” of white sex offenders by assaulting, stabbing or pressuring them into lockup (segregated housing for their own protection).

View of folsom prison main yard via getty images

View of folsom prison main yard via getty images

After we sorted out all the prison lingo, I was able to get Stanley’s mom to understand that her son wasn’t on display as a sex offender target for the prison predators. No actual jackets were harmed in the process.

Eventually, Stanley did run to protective custody.  You can’t spend the rest of your life running with a heavy jacket.




  1. Wow! Of course I knew (intellectually) that every closed group will create their own words, but I’ve never really considered “how” they get created. The “jacket” makes perfect sense when you hear it explained.

    1. Thanks a bunch Robin! There are so many peculiar elements in the prison culture that a unique language has developed to match. It truly does make for an interesting place to work.

  2. I’m glad no actual jackets were harmed!

    1. And straight off the fashion runways comes this year’s hottest trend, the Snitch Jacket.

  3. And I thought cops had strange lingo.

    1. They do share some similarities with the convict as the common denominator.

  4. stephanie710 · · Reply

    And here I thought I learned all I needed to know by watching, Oz. 🙂 My years in probation taught me some of the prison lingo but nothing beats an insider’s explanation. Thanks for another great post, and if I know anyone going to prison (I won’t), I’ll be sure to tell them-no running on the yard. ☺👍

    1. Thanks Stephanie! Be aware of the jackets and no running.My jacket will have really, really long sleeves and buckle in the back.

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