Prison argot and penal discipline
Niyi Awofeso
School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Australia.

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Abstract: Comprised partly of oral and written forms, the lexis and structure of prison argot reflect the personalities of inmates who employ them, as well as the conflicts and tensions inherent in prison settings. It is shown in this article that the distinctiveness of prison argot is largely a product of the character of penal administration. Its extent of use, as well as the stress of its vocabulary, varies dialectically with the extent of penal discipline. Appreciation of this complex relationship might facilitate improved communication between prisoners and custodial authorities. In addition, knowledge of prison argot meanings appears helpful in appreciating the values attached to health and welfare-related issues by prisoners, and thus has a potential to improve the management of prison-based multicultural health programs.


Prison argot ­ a language of vilification

Language is a means of communication whereby, in its oral form, vocal sounds are combined into meaningful units to convey thoughts and feelings. Functioning as general human software, language mediates both mundane and ‘hard’ sacred enterprises in human relations. Most major contemporary languages developed in a mundane fashion ­ French and Spanish developed primarily as exported street slang from the Roman capital at the time of each province’s conquest, while American English evolved partly as a result of the “freezing” of 17th century English expressions imported by early British migrants - e.g. ‘fall’ as synonym for ‘autumn’; ‘trash’ for ‘rubbish’ - on American soil (Wilton, 2003).

The oral form of the unique language of prisoners, i.e. cant, seems to have appeared in Britain early in the 16th century, and in America as well as Australia in the 18th century. In its written forms, prison language serves communicative, aesthetic, and documentary functions (Partridge, 1950). Both oral and written forms constitute major aspects of prison argot. In many prisons, inmates have a language that is largely unique. Pungent, irreverent, appearing as doodles, or sounding like meaningless babbles to others, such language is nevertheless understood by most inmates and many prison officers. The written forms may appear like formal language, albeit with mainstream words accorded metaphorical meanings. Written argot may also take the forms of tattooing or the use of graffiti.

In the interest of improved communication between prisoners and custodial staff, and as a prison security measure, the secret jargon of prisoners should be decoded by the successful prison surveillance staff, much as the ethnologist should master a tribal language, or the counter-terrorist expert decode Internet ciphers of contemporary terrorists. It should be noted that, although non-verbal communication is an important component of prison argot, and indeed of most languages, such ‘body language’ communication is beyond the scope of this article.

Prison argot has many roots, including the vocabulary of criminal gangs, racketeers, jazz/rap artists, prostitutes, beggars, tramps, and those involved with the drug trade. Its academic study provides a map of inmates’ social systems, particularly since the use of gaol vocabulary results from a learning process, passed on through generations of prisoners (Stewart, 1990). Most significant argot words or representations encapsulate the distinctive social roles played by prisoners in response to the problems of imprisonment. It may be surmised that argot is more commonly used in prisons because the regular vocabulary of inmates is limited and profanity and slang are more familiar to inmates, most of whom belong to society’s underclass. Also, there are elements of self-lacerating humour in the language, which apparently livens up otherwise prosaic correctional environments. Furthermore, an in-group of sympathetic affiliates of prisoners may use prison argot to exclude others from participating with them (Clemmer, 1958).

This article explores the complex relationships between penal administration, including official penal language, the development of prison argot, and the implications of such relationships for delivering prison-based multicultural health services. My analysis of prison systems is focussed on modern prisons, i.e. those prisons that formed part of a new mode of governance in which political legitimacy was vested in the nation, and whose emergence corresponds precisely to the collapse of the ‘old world orders’: France after 1789, Russia after 1863, Japan after 1868, and China after 1905 (Dikotter, 2002).

As detailed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1978), from the beginning of the 19th century, two processes of punishment began to disappear: torture, including execution, as a public spectacle; and physical pain inflicted on convicts. Rather than seeing the spectacle of external punishment on the body, the prison became the symbol of punishment of the soul, not least through deprivation of liberty. Custodial authorities were granted State power to perform duties hitherto entrusted on executioners and corporal punishment officers. Consequently, the primary emphasis of criminal justice gradually changed from terror and physical punishment to instilling discipline into the soul of convicts. It is with regard to the changing operational definitions of ‘discipline’ over the past two centuries that prison argot has developed interactively.

Generally, prison argot developed and flourished in eras when prisons were managed as total institutions, whereby confinements of the poor, law-breakers, and mentally unstable concentrated large sections of particular social groups in society under one roof ­ the so-called Great Confinement. This incarceration pattern took several forms: galleys in the Mediterranean, gulag archipelago in the former Soviet Union, oubliettes in France, or Houses of Correction in England, all of which provided centres for administering punishment to the body and soul of convicts ­ a process memorably described by Foucault in Madness and Civilization (1967).

As prison administration became more humane and as prisoners’ extent of confinement became somewhat relaxed (e.g. through shorter/suspended sentences and periodic detention), prisoners’ need for the use of prison argot lessened, and prison inmates’ particularistic vocabulary became essentially indistinguishable from the language spoken by inmates’ peers outside the prison system. I therefore hypothesize that the extent of uniqueness of prison argot, compared with the language commonly spoken by inmates’ peer groups outside prison settings, constitutes proxy indicators of the harshness of penal discipline, and the social distance between prisoners and the general community. I conclude that a basic understanding of prison argot by health care workers should facilitate the appropriate and effective delivery of multicultural health programs in prison settings, among other benefits to effective custodial administration.

Evolution of prison argot in totalitarian prison regimes

According to Goffman (1961) and Sykes (1958), prisons of the 19th and early 20th centuries shared many common characteristics of total institutions, such as exclusion of inmates from participating in arriving at decisions taken regarding their daily lives, incompatibility with work-payment structure and family life, and deprivation at the most basic levels (i.e. liberty, goods and services, autonomy, security, and heterosexual relationships). Penal philosophy during this era was primarily based on punishment to the body and mind of prisoners (then referred to as convicts), and prisons were commonly referred to as penitentiaries or asylums. Most inmates were incarcerated in isolation, and security was strictly enforced with the prison warders socialized to regard inmates as subhuman beings. The most graphic illustration of inmates’ degraded status during this period was the carnival of public execution, in which inmates were paraded on the streets to the amusement and jubilation of community residents, before being hanged or shot. Public executions were legal in England until 1868, in New South Wales (Australia) until 1855, and New Zealand until 1858. Less overt was the forced isolation of prisoners for up to 18 months to ‘break his/her will’, a practice that commonly precipitated insanity and suicides among inmates (Pratt, 2002). First implemented in Pentonville prison, London, in the second half of the 19th century, this regime of punishment was duplicated at the Port Arthur penitentiary, Australia, throughout the 19th century. The author’s 1998 visit to the now decommissioned Port Arthur penitentiary provided vivid images of prisoners’ miserable lived experience in Australia during this period.

Goffman (1961) noted how the total institutions of 19th and early 20th century prisons undercut inmates’ personal efficacy through the use of speech. One implication of using words to convey decisions about action is that the recipient of an order is seen as capable of receiving a message, and acting under his/her own power to complete the suggestion or command. Responding to such questions from custodial staff in his/her own words and executing the command himself/herself, the prisoner is able to sustain the notion that he/she is somebody to be considered, somebody self-determining. Unfortunately, the prison inmate of this era invariably found himself/herself denied even this protective distance and self-action. Inmates’ statements were discounted as mere psychiatric symptoms, and often he/she was considered to be of insufficient status to be accorded even minor courtesies, let alone listened to. Or, the inmate may find that a rhetorical use of language occurs, in which questions such as “have you got both socks on?” are accompanied by simultaneous searching by the staff that physically discloses the facts, making these verbal questions superfluous. Furthermore, communication between inmates was severely restricted and closely monitored, thus hindering meaningful social interactions among inmates.

Until the mid-20th century in most nations, penal servitude was intended to be a terrible punishment, and so it was. The ‘ideal type’ prisoner was depicted by the general community as a cunning brute, who would exploit any sentiment in the criminal justice system as a weakness in the penal armor that had been constructed to protect society from criminals. Prisoners were regarded as laggards who dissipated the State’s precious resources, loafers who burdened the nation. The consequently wide social distance between inmates and the community created security problems for custodial authorities, as inmates invariably united on the proposition that a prisoner should never give information to custodial authorities that would act to the detriment of fellow captives. Such inmate-initiated ban on communication between ‘captors’ and ‘captives’ extended to cover all but the most routine matters.

Since custodial authorities were empowered to eavesdrop on inmates’ conversations, the use of cant, (i.e. oral prison argot) to keep inmates’ conversations confidential became a necessary survival mechanism to preserve the confidentiality of prisoners’ matters. The distinctiveness of cant tended to correlate with the need for inmates to keep their monitored conversations out of reach of custodial authorities. Hence, oral prison argot is, at least in part, a consequence of the harsh regime of penal discipline that prevailed in prisons until the mid-20th century.

Written prison argot, particularly in the form of tattooing, also derived primarily from harsh penal discipline that was operational during this era. For instance, as part of the penal transportation procedures from the United Kingdom to Australia between 1787 and 1867, British officials tattooed inmates, in part to persuade both observer and tattooed inmates that the colonial state was ‘all-knowing’. Colonial expansion necessitated a cheap and controllable labor supply in the newly colonized Australia. Convict labor was both, and thus highly desirable (Sharpe, 1988).

Inmates who had a history of desertion from penal servitude in England were branded with the letter ‘D’ prior to their transport to Australia. However, many of such prisoners arrived in Australia with numerous new designs, but often strangely lacking the tattoos inscribed on them by colonial authorities. For instance, inmate Aaron Page, who was branded ‘D’ (for ‘deserter’) by British colonial authorities arrived in Hobart, Australia, in 1844, with the letter ‘D’ embellished by a Union Jack pricked on it. Other convict tattoos carried subliminal messages of defiance. For example, George Dakin arrived in Port Arthur in 1827 inscribed with Proverbs 14.9: ‘fools make a mock at sin’. An interpretation of this tattoo might be that any custodial official who scorned Dakin for being a felon risked being seen as a fool (Caplan, 2000). Evidently, some prisoners understood the advantages of their bodies’ innate plasticity for frustrating or defying their captors. This power of tattoos to elicit laughter, mimicry, parody, satire and rough wit, made it well suited as a written form of prison argot. Thus, tattooing as a form of prison argot had its origins in inmates’ latent rebellion against stigmatizing and identifying tattoos inked on them by, especially, British colonial and custodial authorities during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Over time, however, some custodial officers not only knew the meanings of the inmates’ argot, but also used it constantly in their daily speech. Such good appreciation of inmates’ argot by custodial staff might indicate some corruption, or unusual closeness to the inmates’ world, by custodial staff. Nevertheless, most inmates and staff realized that prison language might be used without necessarily signifying commitment to the values of inmate-groups. Australian custodial authorities were well aware of the need to understand the meanings of cant from a security point of view, and their tacit continuing support for including argot roles in the training of newly-employed custodial officers, demonstrate their enthusiasm to decipher the unique language of prisoners.

A brief description of prison argot roles

Cant is a fairly well recognized form of prison argot, as the impressive variety of dictionaries translating ‘prison slang’ to mainstream language suggests. One of the more authoritative of such dictionaries is that by Eric Partridge (1950), which has about 45,000 entries from British, American and Australian prisons, complete with etymology and regional variations. A common feature of cant is that most speakers address themselves by their nicknames, such as “Red”, “Slim”, and “Snakie.” Usually, nicknames are significant of locality, nationality, physiognomy, criminal technique, and/or some outstanding personality trait. Nicknames color conversations, and are also a means of classifying persons (Clemmer, 1958). The author has observed a similar trend in contemporary Australian prisons.

A primary use of cant is in exemplifying particular aspects of imprisonment. In this respect, three words stand out ­ “rat”, “poof”, and “screw”. The word “rat” (or “squealer”/”stool pigeon”) refers to an individual who betrays his fellow inmates by violating the ban on communication with custodial authorities. This label represents one of the most serious accusations an inmate can level against another, for it implies a betrayal that denies the cohesion of prisoners when confronting the world of officialdom. There are two common forms of ‘ratting’ in prisons ­ those who reveal their identity to custodial authorities in the hope of trading inmates’ information for institutional preferential treatment, and those who prefer to remain anonymous because they wish to get rid of a competitor or settle a grudge. Thus, the rat may be a manipulator, liar, or betrayer, and he/she threatens the innocent as well as the guilty (Sykes, 1958).

A “poof” is the cant for describing a receptive male homosexual. Etymologically, the word is derived from “puff”, which denotes the breathing mechanism of the male engaged in receptive oral sex. The Australian variant of this word is “poofter.” In most prison settings, poofters were derided as weak, female-like inmates, while prisoners engaged in penetrative homosexual acts were regarded as more masculine. The unflattering attributes of this word in prison settings may be implied by the fact that it may also be used to refer to a police informer. The term “screw” is derived from the twisting motion used in locking and unlocking a door, and it may be applied to the guard because he is the one who unlocks, or unscrews, prison cell doors. In most Western prisons, this interpretation is well known by inmates and staff. Less commonly nowadays, “screw” may also be used to describe the process of opening a door using false keys (Partridge, 1950).

One aspect of imprisonment that, until recently, was perceived negatively by prison inmates was the prison health service. At the beginnings of the modern prison system, medicine and criminology aimed to correct, discipline and normalize the confined in a ‘laboratory’ where punishment functioned openly as treatment. During this period, medical control over inmates was part of a disciplinary strategy that extended control over prisoners’ life and conduct. Indeed, one of the roles of medical officers in British prisons, as stated in the 1774 Prison Act, was to detect prisoners who were feigning madness. Thus, the mentally unstable convict was presumed a manipulator until proven otherwise. Chemical control was also used to assert medical power in the 19th century - one of the most widely prescribed classes of drugs in prisons was a tranquillizer. ‘Treatment’ had the prime purpose of keeping inmates manageable while incarcerated. Recalcitrant inmates were diagnosed as insane and confined to psychiatric units. Also, until the post-1950 era, hardly any prison medical staff that witnessed the damaging effects of prolonged detention without trial, and of solitary confinement, spoke against such inhumane practices. Their public silence raised the question of their complicity in prisoners’ torture. Consequently, a majority of prisoners disliked most prison doctors and the prison health establishment (Sim, 1990). Not unexpectedly therefore, most argot terms relating to prison health workers had unflattering connotations. For instance, the argot term “gronk” is remains in current use in Australian prisons in describing health workers perceived as insensitive to prisoners’ health and welfare interests.

Cant exists in prison not only by speech but also by written messages, otherwise known as “kites”. Kites are usually exchanged between inmates who work in different sections of prisons, or in separate prisons, and are thus unable to see each other. They are usually written using cryptic language, such that even if intercepted by custodial authorities, it would be difficult to prove their contents - for instance, prisons where discipline was unusually harsh were referred to as ‘Siberia’ in Australian and British prisons in the mid-19th century. Kites may deal with escape plans, food, riot plans, or sexual liaisons. Kites are commonly carried by “runners”, inmates who have freedom to move around, or in and out of, prisons, such as prisoners on work-release or weekend leave (Clemmer, 1958).

The most common written form of prison argot is tattooing. Tattooing is one of the oldest forms of irreversible skin alteration. Captain James Cook’s July 1769 description of the practice of “tattowing” in Tahiti heralded the first appearance of this word in the English language (DeMello, 2000). As a proto-language, a primary purpose of tattooing in prisons is to signify inclusion in a prison group. Tattoos apparently bestow status on prisoners, allowing him/her to both transcend and separate himself/herself from the faceless, homogenized and uniformed mass that the disciplinary life of prison typically strives to create. Being illegal in most prison settings, the very act of tattooing undermines institutional surveillance. For most tattooed inmates, their inked skin provides visual declarations of emotional pain and sentiments they might otherwise find difficult to express. For instance, symbols of aggression such as dragons and skulls are over-represented in prison tattoos. Also common are names of inmates’ mothers, partners, gang members, and/or loved ones. In the United State, Latino prisoners seem to prefer Christian religious symbols. One inmate explained his desire for the image of Jesus Christ: “In prison, I could understand better what Christ must have gone through as a victim and prisoner”. Tattoos may speak in coded messages of an inmate’s place in the criminal milieu, announcing a particular skill or nefarious predilection, a past criminal career or a particular fate (Brady, 1993; Awofeso, 2002a; Awofeso and Williams, 2000).

Impact of post-1950 prison reforms on prison argot

The reforms of the prison system, which became widespread following the end of the Second World War, were the culmination of decades of campaigns by social reformers for a humane approach to punishment, the horrifying accounts of prisoners of war, as well changing public attitudes in line with the views of prison reformers. For example, as early as 1847, influential prison reform advocates such as William Allen had advocated that the purpose of punishment should not be to terrorize or humiliate, but instead to “reform the guilty and restore criminals as useful members of the community… [this] is a triumph of humanity and marks a state rising in the scale of civilization.” Other reformers like John Howard campaigned vigorously for the amelioration of basic aspects of prison life - especially diet - as part of a more general reform process designed to alleviate the debilitating consequences of imprisonment. Public opinion gradually gravitated towards the side of these reformers, as evidenced by the change in the general attitude of the populace in Western society to the spectacle of public execution, from jubilation in the early 19th century, to sympathy and disgust from the early 20th century. From this time onwards, public executions were generally condemned by the general populace, who regarded this form of capital punishment as one of the most glaring breaches of civilized conduct (Garland, 1990). As the 20th century progressed, penal and social policy increasingly reflected the idea that government intervention could and should integrate the socially marginal. Penal modernists therefore identified rehabilitation ­ operationally defined as the use of ‘individualized’ corrective measures adapted to the specific case’ ­ as the most appropriate response to deviant behavior (Garland, 1985).

The post-war ruling elites in many nations also supported such a humane approach to the treatment of prisoners. Modernizing elites viewed the reformation of prisoners as an integral part of a much larger project of national regeneration in which social cohesion, economic development, and state power could be most satisfactorily obtained by molding obedient citizens. Model post-war prisons were thus a microcosm of an exemplary society in which the emulation of models - be it in the prison, factory, or schools - was framed as a strategy for consolidating State power (Dikotter, 2002).

Following the abolition of public execution in Western society from the mid-19th century, reformers turned their attention to the very notion of capital punishment, which they opposed as uncivilized and inhumane. These advocacy efforts were largely responsible for the abolition of capital punishment in most Western societies in the decade following the Second World War. This abolition of capital punishment was accompanied by significant changes to other aspects of penal discipline. Rehabilitation replaced punishment as the primary purpose of imprisonment, while isolated cells were replaced by more humane living conditions, which facilitated meaningful interaction among inmates, and between inmates and staff. Case management and ‘dynamic security’ became at least as important as fences and towers in the maintenance of security.

Custodial officers have, since the past several decades, been working within a multidisciplinary team consisting of specialist staff in health, social work, occupational rehabilitation, theology, and psychology. Improvements in inmates’ welfare was evidenced by the provision to inmates, usually free of charge, of decent clothing and footwear, balanced diet, opportunities to request special diets on health and religious grounds, as well as free basic medical and dental services. Lesser emphasis on regimentation became a common feature of Western prisons. ‘Dynamic security’, alternative sentencing options such as weekend detention, and increased emphasis on rehabilitation, facilitated significant and meaningful interactions and communication between inmates and staff on one hand, and between inmates and the wider community on the other.

Post-1950s custodial authorities appeared keen to ameliorate essential living conditions of prisons to the point where they could be seen as essentially ‘normalized’. Gradually, stigmatizing prison conditions that tended to present the prisoner as an outcast were removed from penal discourse. Even the prison language of the custodial authorities was sanitized to reflect the emerging philosophy of reformation as the primary function of prisons. With the abolition of the death penalty, it became a matter of course that while the prisons might temporarily remove inmates from society, society would never be rid of most prisoners, as they would only be released back to the community in due course. Consequent to this realization was the evolution of a sanitized penal language, which appeared to recognize the prisoners’ possibilities of reform ­ a language of remedial humanitarianism.

For example, in New South Wales over the past three decades, the ‘Department of Prisons’ was renamed the ‘Department of Corrective Services’. ‘Prisons’ were renamed ‘correctional centers’ and ‘training centers’. ‘Convict/criminal’ became ‘prisoner’, then ‘inmate’, and more recently, ‘trainee’. The more the language of punishment became sanitized, the more it became possible to speak of the prisoner as a subject to be restored to full citizenship rather than as an enemy to be excluded. The previous imagery of prisoners as wild beasts was replaced by the concepts of socio-emotional inadequacy and depictions of unfulfilled lives. Also important in this respect was the rising cost of maintaining prisoners. For example, as at 1998, it cost US$21,470 to maintain an inmate annually in California state prisons, US$3,499 (16.3%) of which was expended on health care (Wacquant, 2002), and this cost has risen substantially since. Hence, minimum sentences, and alternative sentencing programs that facilitate greater inmate contact with the general community have been necessitated in part by fiscal realities. The resulting relaxation of harsh prison statutes has had significant impact on the uniqueness of prison argot.

Prisons came to be seen as institutions for supervised liberty, and corrective, re-educational treatment programs, rather than the historically adopted concept of punitive detention facilities. Such sanitization helped to close the social distance existing between the prisoner and the society at large. Just as prisoners were no longer easily distinguished physically from otherwise law-abiding citizens, so also was custodial punishment relatively more lenient. Such humanitarian approaches to improving prisoners’ social conditions have extended to allowing family and friends to visit inmates in pleasant and relaxed surroundings. Inmates’ contacts with the general community were further strengthened through work-release programs, periodic detention, and community visits (Pratt, 2002).

In the United States, the fairly recent phenomenon of ‘mass imprisonment’, whereby young African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated has created a situation whereby prison argot in most American states is virtually coterminous with mundane speech in poor black neighborhoods, where most of these young prisoners originally resided (Wacquant, 2001). Interestingly, rap artists like “50 Cent” exaggerate their incarceration experience, and sing using prison argot terms, as a ploy to command enhanced popularity in (black) entertainment circles, thus demonstrating the marked decline in the stigma of imprisonment among young African Americans, and the hybridization of the language of the prison with the language of the street.

The penal reforms described above indirectly contributed to the attrition of prison argot in prison settings in several ways. First, in modern prisons, the inmate was accorded basic respects by custodial staff, most of who currently regard him more as a trainee with good rehabilitation prospects, rather than as a convict. Restoration of prisoners’ self respect by custodial authorities encouraged most inmates to demonstrate greater self-discipline and extend reciprocal courtesies. Furthermore, inmates’ graduated liberties, such as parole and visiting privileges, were linked to documented ‘good communication’ with custodial authorities, and willingness to participate in prison-based ‘reformation programs’. Thus, the institutional incentives for prisoners to share the goals of prison authorities vis-à-vis rehabilitation led to a reduced need to ‘speak in a different language’. For most post-1950 inmates, the bitterness-tinged, irreverent prison argot was considered inappropriate for responding to such courteous communication.

Second, the general conditions in prisons have improved sufficiently that many argot terms, such as those referring to poor food quality and hostile prison health staff, have become obsolete currently. Prison argot evolved primarily by attaching distinctive names to the problems and peculiar social roles that inmates were faced with. By so doing, the inmate group provided itself with a sort of shorthand that enabled prisoners to prepare for rebellious action, or engage in self-lacerating humor in circumstances where the required action was plagued with formidable obstacles. The continuing efforts of prison reform groups, including (ex-inmate) advocacy groups like New South Wales’ “Justice Action”, have contributed significantly to welfare improvements in prison life, and consequently eroded the unique prison vocabulary related to poor food quality through lack of regular use. For instance, Australian inmates currently complain of prison food being too fattening, using slang (e.g. ‘junk food’) that are commonly used in the general community - a departure from the era of starvation diets that characterized prison nutrition until the early part of the 20th century (Sim, 1990). Consequently, the argot terms that were used to describe such starvation diets disappeared from prisoners’ lexicon largely through loss of relevance. The author is aware that a significant proportion of prisoners in New South Wales put on significant amount of weight while incarcerated. In contrast, in prisons situated in developing countries like Nigeria - where such inadequate diets and other forms of cruel punishments persist (Alemika, 1993) -, argot terms relating to poor prison diets and related deprivations remain in common use.

Third, frequent relocations of inmates between prisons, partly as a security measure, made it difficult for primary prison groups to develop sufficient solidarity to fully understand prison argot. When custodial officers become aware of the existence of such groups, (or gangs, as they are commonly described in official custodial language), prisoners affiliated with such groups are usually disbanded through transfers to separate prisons. On the other hand, regular contacts with community members facilitated post-1950 prisoners’ understanding of slang in common use in the community. For instance, with about 2 million citizens incarcerated as at 30 March 2003, the United States currently leads the world in having the highest proportion of its citizens imprisoned, according to a recent US Justice Department report. Annually, at least 600,000 prisoners are released into the community. With 702 prisoners per 100,000 adult population, and a quarter of those imprisoned being released into the community every year, gang culture in the community is becoming indistinguishable from prison gangs in terms of argot vocabulary. Furthermore, the increased exposure of prisoners to community life has made the designs of prison tattoos less distinctive, as evidenced by the virtual disappearance, in Western prisons, of peculiar prison tattoos, such as the ‘tear’ tattoo, which indicated that an inmate has served more than one prison term (Awofeso, 2002a).

Future of prison argot ­ implications for planning multicultural health programs

The gradual disappearance of prison argot in most Western prisons, largely through disuse atrophy, appears linked with post-1950 reforms of (Western) prison systems that regarded the inmate as an individual capable of being reformed, as well as frequent relocation of inmates, which made the mastering of argot terms difficult. In marked contrast to the pre-1950 era when the core problem of prisons was perceived as a lack of inclination of the majority of prisoners to participate in the process of reformation, in the post-1950s prison policy environment, the core problem for prisons was perceived as dehumanizing custodial practices which robbed the prisoner of a sense of self-respect, thus producing hardened recidivists. In consonance with the post-enlightenment view of prisoners’ nature as inherently good and highly malleable, the notion of prison reformation was sustained on the belief that prisoners could achieve individual self-improvement with proper institutional guidance.

In most Western prisons currently, argot terms are largely indistinguishable from the ‘street language’ spoken by inmates’ peer-groups in the community. Indeed many argot vocabularies, e.g. Poofter, Rat, Pokey, and Barmy, have become accepted as part of mainstream vocabulary. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the supporters of the English cricket team are proud to call themselves ‘The Barmy Army’, regardless of the fact that ‘Barmy’ was originally an argot word for an insane prisoner (Partridge, 1950). While prison tattoos may still be distinguishable from ‘professional’ tattoos on account of poor quality, most current prison tattoo designs are similar to those of inmates’ peer-groups in the community (Wacquant, 2001).

However, the generally positive impact of post-1950s ‘penal welfarism’ should not be overstated, as contemporary inmates’ accounts of prison life tends to paint a less glamorous picture compared with the versions of custodial authorities. Indeed, there are two versions of ‘truth’ concerning prison life ­ the official penal discourse and the discourse of inmates. Official penal versions are usually more likely to be believed by the populace mainly because of bureaucratization of penal administration, and public indifference ­ the unified penal establishment gained immense power to define the reality of prison life, while gradually excluding the general public from having a significant say in the way inmates are managed. From the 1980s, however, such indifference changed to anxiety, with society no longer content for punishment just to be hidden away, but for there to be more forceful, repressive measures of punishment. The rise of penal populism and neo-liberal ideology has resulted in the erosion of some of the pro-prisoner gains made in prison administration since the 1950s (Pratt, 2002).

Elections are now being won or lost in Western society based on the public’s perception of how “tough on crime” politicians and political parties are. Penal language is once again becoming increasingly hostile, with the emphasis shifting from humaneness to severe discipline (Wacquant, 2002). Attendant with this shift is a shift in the axis of penal power, from the dominant bureaucratic rationalism of the state towards the emotive ‘harshest-possible-punishment’ mentality of a large section of the general public. Evidence of this contemporary reversal of penal tolerance is most evident in southern United States (e.g. Georgia and Alabama), where chain gangs have been re-introduced, and inmates are currently compelled to wear uniforms inscribed with “State prisoner”. The social distance between inmates and custodial staff in such societies has, once again, started to widen (Pratt, 2002).

Under such circumstances, prison argot is likely to become revitalized, as it would be needed to cement inmates’ solidarity and lessen their ‘pains of imprisonment’ in the face of increasing hostility by custodial authorities. However, what would likely change in such revitalized argot compared with the pre-1950s era is an increased focus on issues that currently concern repressed inmates, such as riot plans, revenge on ‘rats’, and brainstorming on legal protests, including litigation, against prison officers and health workers that are perceived as unsympathetic. The makes the extent of use, as well as the content, of prison argot useful barometers for assessing the impact of prison welfare reforms, as well as monitoring the social distance between inmates and staff in custodial settings.

From a public health perspective, an area in which a basic understanding of prison argot and its cultural significance may be useful is in the planning and management of prison-based multicultural health programs. It is noteworthy that, multicultural health programs in most communities are currently organized largely along language and cultural lines (e.g. “Non-English Speaking background” [NESB], or “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Groups” [CALD]). Thus, adequate understanding of argot roles facilitates the delivery of prison-based multicultural health programs in several ways. First, it improves the understanding of prison culture, which, in its most complete sense refers to the social organization of prisoners’ life. Prison culture denote the habits, behaviour systems, traditions, customs, folkways, codes, and rules which guide the inmates, and their ideas, opinions, and attitudes towards or against family, health and health care providers, education, law enforcement agencies, and so on. Understanding the language through which inmates’ social organization is being expressed should improve the planning and management of multicultural health programs (Awofeso, 2002b).

Second, studies by Sykes (1958) have suggested that inmates feel that a person who speaks in terms of their lexicon is something other than a stranger, although he may remain hard to define. Thus, understanding prison argot helps public health workers to ‘put a foot in the door’ in winning the trust of typically suspicious inmates while planning and implementing multicultural health programs. This is particularly important given the historically unhelpful roles played by prison health workers vis-à-vis inmates health and welfare needs, as described earlier. Third, prison argot serves as an expression of group loyalty and group membership. A cohesive inmate society provides the prisoner with a meaningful social group with which he/she can identify himself/herself and which would support him/her during his/her term of imprisonment. Thus, prison-based multicultural health programs may sometimes be more appropriately tailored long such linguistically defined lines, rather than the traditional emphasis on individuals’ ethnic backgrounds in the general community. Finally, public health workers may be able to surmise the impact of penal discipline, and abuse of custodial powers, on inmates’ health welfare from the content and extent of use of prison argot. Incarceration, of all forms of punishment, is one that attracts the most frequent and easy abuse, since most activities are shielded from public view. For instance, widespread use of argot terms relating to the sexual predilections of custodial officers and prison doctors might indicate institutionalized sexual exploitation of inmates by custodial and health staff (Human Rights Watch, 1996). As the meanings of argot terms are commonly context-specific, intelligence-gathering personnel of prisons need to include the deciphering of argot terms in their areas as an integral aspect of their surveillance activities.

Works Cited

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About the Author: Niyi Awofeso has been working as Public Health Officer (Surveillance) with the New South Wales Corrections Health Service, Australia, since 1998. Prior to this appointment, he undertook physician responsibilities at Kaduna State prisons, Nigeria, between 1990 and 1995. Apart from prison argot, his other prison-related research interests include tattooing, human rights, multicultural health, hepatitis B, and tobacco control. However, the depth of his research studies is severely limited by his total lack of actual incarceration experience.