Within prison systems, there evolves a peculiar language of slang that often seems out of place in broader society. This slang has some consistency throughout the United States but does vary in specific terminology from state to state. The language often used by inmates, including slang, is also affected by their racial and gang lineage. For instance, members of the Crips or the Bloods will have certain terms that usually are only used by their groups, often as a means of identifying or denigrating the other group. Likewise, Latino gang members in the Mexican Mafia and/or the Texas Syndicate will also tend to have their own vernacular, with much of this being either Spanish phraseology or some type of unique slang. Terms like punk (an inmate turned out in prison), shank (a knife), bug juice (referring to psychotropic medications), and green light (referring to clearance to assault another inmate) are commonly known forms of slang found in most prison systems.
In nearly every prison around the United States, one key fundamental issue is paramount among inmates: respect. This one word is perhaps the most important concept to understanding the inmate subculture. Inmate status revolves around the amount of respect given to an inmate and/or signs of disrespect exhib- ited toward an inmate. Respect is a term that represents an inmate’s sense of masculine standing within the prison culture; if inmates are disrespected, they are honor-bound to avenge that disrespect or consid- ered weak by other inmates. Any failure to preserve their sense of respect will lead to a question of the inmates’ manhood and their ability to handle prison, and will lead others to think that they are perhaps weak. The fixation on respect (and fixation is an appropriate description in some prisons) is particu- larly pronounced among African American gang members in prison. This is also glorified in much of the contemporary gangsta music that emerged in the 1990s and continues today. This concept has become prevalent in the modern-day prison world. Because inmates have little else, their sense of self-respect and the respect that they are able to maintain from others is paramount to their own welfare and survival.
In addition, it is usually considered a sign of weakness to take help or assistance from another inmate, at least when one is new to the prison environment. Indeed, inmates will be tested when new to the prison world; they may be offered some type of item (e.g., coffee or cigarettes) or provided some type of service (get- ting access to the kitchen), but this is never for free or due to goodwill. Rather, inmate subculture dictates that a debt is thus owed by the newbie (a term for inmates who are new to a prison). New inmates may be required or coerced to do “favors” for the inmate who provided them with the good or service. For example, they might be asked to be a “mule” for the inmate or the inmate’s gang. A mule is a person who smuggles drugs into prison for another inmate, often using his or her own body cavities to hide the drugs from prison authori- ties. In other cases, the inmate may be forced to become a punk for that inmate or for an entire prison gang.
THE CON AND THE NEVER-ENDING HUSTLE
Among inmates, there is the constant push and pull between the need to “con” others and, at the same time, the need to be streetwise enough to avoid being conned. Naturally, this constant and contradictory set of expectations completely impedes the ability for inmates to develop any sort of true trust; they must always remain vigilant for the potential “hustle” within the prison system. The term hustle refers to any action that is designed to deceive, manipulate, or take advantage of another person. Further, consider that the very term convict includes the word con, which implies that the individual cannot and should not be trusted. Thus, convicts are, stereotypically, always on the hustle, so to speak.
Inmates who are able to “get over” on others and or “skate” through work or other obligations in the prison system are considered particularly streetwise and savvy among their peers. In fact, some prison systems, such as the Texas prison system, have a term for this concept, known as “hogging.” Hogging is a term that is used to imply that a person is using others for some type of gain or benefit, manipulating others into doing work, or fulfilling obligations on his or her behalf. When inmates are able to find some means to manipulate others into doing their dirty work, they are active in the art of the con. The process by which they encourage or manipulate a person to provide such a service is all part of the hustle.
A classic portrayal of this type of logic, though not a prison example, can be found in the story The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. In this classic, Tom Sawyer, at one point, convinces other
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boys in the area that painting a fence (a chore that was assigned to young Tom) was a fun activity. So fun was it, according to Tom, that he would not allow anyone else to help him unless they paid him to do so. Ultimately, other boys paid Tom for the “opportunity” to paint the fence and join in the fun. Once several other boys had been solicited and had paid their fee for the privilege of painting this fence, Tom slipped off to spend the money that he had procured from those he had duped into doing his own assigned work. This example demonstrates all the fine points of the con, the hustle, and the act of hogging others.
THE IMPACT OF THE INMATE SUBCULTURE ON CUSTODIAL STAFF
Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics within prison occurs between the inmates and the prison staff. This area of discussion is both complicated and paradoxical, in many respects. The paradox involved with this dynamic is that, while on the one hand, inmate subculture restricts inmates from “siding” with officers and officer culture restricts officers from befriending inmates, there is a natural give-and-take that emerges between both groups. In fact, a symbiotic relationship usually emerges between prison secu- rity staff and the inmate population. The symbiotic prison relationship exists between correctional staff and inmates as a means of developing mutually compliant and informal negotiations in behavior that is acceptable within the bounds of institutional security yet, at the same time, allows inmates to meet many of their basic human needs. This relationship is grounded in the reality of the day-to-day interactions that prison security staff have with inmates who live within the institution.
Because prison is a very intense environment that has a very strong psychological impact on both inmates and staff, it is only natural that this type of relationship often emerges. While the rules of the institution are often clearly written, these rules are often not pragmatic for the officers who must enforce them. For example, a rule to restrict inmates from having more than one blanket in their cell may, on the face of it, seem easy enough to enforce. However, consider the following scenarios when considering rule enforcement:
A veteran officer with many years of experience may find that a given inmate, Inmate X who upholds the convict code and has respect within the institution, has the flu during the winter. The officer has access to additional blankets, and this is known among the inmates. Inmate X, in this case, tends to mind his own business and usually does as he is expected when the officer is on duty. The officer, in this case, may decide to offer Inmate X an additional blanket and would do so with no expectation that the inmate give something in return. Likewise, the inmate (as well as others watching) would know that the officer’s kindness should not be taken for weakness, or no further empathy will be shown to convicts.
This same veteran officer, having many years of experience, finds that Inmate Y who does not uphold the convict code and generally has average clout (at best) within the prison culture, has the flu during the winter. Inmate Y sometimes causes problems on the cell block for other officers and sometimes is sarcastic with officers. The veteran officer, in this case, would likely not give an additional blanket to Inmate Y, even if Inmate Y were to be courteous enough to ask for the additional blanket. In most cases, Inmate Y would know better than to ask, since he knows that he does not honor the convict code or work within the commonsense bounds of the symbiotic prison relationship. If he were to ask and especially if he were to push the issue, the veteran officer would inform him that “the rules are the rules” and would indicate that he needs to keep quiet and go to sick call when that option is available. Further discourse from Inmate Y would result in comments from the veteran officer that would imply that he is being a troublemaker and that he is not doing his time “like a man,” leading to a loss of respect among others on the cell block. This would likely shame Inmate Y and cause him to lose status, yet, at the same time, the veteran officer would likely gain status among the inmates as being firm, streetwise, and cognizant of subcultural norms. Because he does not give in to Inmate Y, he would be perceived as strong and capable, not subject to manipulation and not an easy mark.
Journal Article Link 10.2 Read more about the impact of inmate subculture on custodial staff.
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Obviously, Inmate X and Inmate Y are being given different standards of treatment. This is because implicit within the symbiotic prison relationship is the notion that “I will do my time and leave you to do your time,” which is understood by veteran inmates and officers alike. Regardless of whether it is overtly stated or simply presumed, veteran officers will tend to leave convicts and/or trouble-free inmates unbothered and may, in some cases, even extend some degree of preferential treatment, within acceptable boundaries that allow them to maintain respect on the cell block. However, this does not mean that they will do so for all inmates, but they instead reserve the right to use discretion when divvying out the paltry resources available within the prison. In short, these veteran officers become
effective resource and power brokers as a means of gaining compliance and creating an informal system of fairness that is understood informally among the inmates. Essentially, this type of veteran officer operates with this understanding:
I will let you do your time, but you will let me do my time—one shift at a time.
This concept is important because it creates a connection between both groups; they are both in a noxious environment, and both individuals have a role that they must uphold. Yet, at the same time, some degree of give-and-take is necessary to avoid extremes in rules that do not, ultimately, create just situations. So long as inmates allow the officer to generally do his time, one shift at a time, he will, in turn, leave them to serve their time without problems. On the other hand, if an inmate does not honor this type of understanding, he should expect no mercy or consideration from the prison security staff; the rules are the rules, and any sense of discretion will simply cease to be acted upon.
Officers who master these types of negotiations tend to gain respect from inmates and even from other officers. They may sometimes be referred to as “convict bosses” by inmates. The term convict boss or convict officer denotes an identity where the correctional officer has developed a keen understanding of convict logic and socialization and uses that knowledge to maximize control over his assigned post. This term is a form of respect that has been gained among inmates for that officer and generally comes with time, experience, sound judgment, and a cunning personality that is not easily deceived or manipu- lated. The officer is not perceived as weak but is instead thought to possess a good degree of common sense among inmates within the facility.
One important note should be added to this discussion. Students should keep in mind that the examples in the prior scenarios present a veteran officer with several years of experience. The use of this type of discretion by newer officers who do not have sufficient time and experience working with the inmate population will not have the same result. If a newer or younger officer attempted such discretion, he would likely be seen as a “sucker” and someone who could be easily marked for future exploitation. This person would not be perceived to understand the fine nuances in the gray areas of discretion within prison rules, norms, and mores. This person would also not likely be trusted among his peers who, gener- ally, would expect him to stay “by the book” until he developed the level of expertise to make distinctions between blurred circumstances. This officer would likely be labeled “weak” among inmates and might even be considered an “inmate lover” by other officers. These labels should be avoided in hard-core insti- tutions because once they are applied, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to be rid of them.
Lastly, the mannerisms that are displayed, both by inmates and officers, often reflect the type of upbringing that one has had and also tend to belie the value system from which that person operates. Within the prison, this is important because during an inmate or beginning officer’s first few weeks of indoctrination to the prison experience, he or she is being “sized up” or appraised by others who observe them. Both the officers and the inmates begin to determine if the person is likely to be easily influenced and/or manipulated. This formative period whereby inmates and staff are socialized into the prison
Sergeant Tatum talks with inmates regarding the organization of an upcoming function in a meeting hall of the prison. The means by which officers and inmates talk to each other sets the tone for respect or disrespect in the prison.
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culture is important due to the influences of the prison subculture that include the inmate’s subculture, the officer’s subculture, and the need to master the symbiotic prison relationship between the two.