This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
I went to prison at the age of 22 for an LSD conspiracy charge. I was given a 25-year sentence—more time than how old I was—and served 21 years. There's a distinct vocabulary unique to the convict class, and I was forced to wrap my head around it very quickly. Here's a primer on the A-to-Z of prison slang to help you out if you ever find yourself in the slammer.
AB: "Hold up, bro. You can't make a move on that white boy. He's down with the AB."
The AB, or Aryan Brotherhood, is also known as the Brand. They are a whites-only prison gang with a fierce reputation. Prisoners can't just join them; they have to be invited to become a member of the gang. They operate with a blood-in/blood-out mentality: Prisoners have to kill to get in and can only leave the gang when they're dead.
BINKY: "I got a paper. You got a binky or what? I'm trying to get down."
A binky is a homemade syringe that consists of an eyedropper, a pen shaft, and a guitar string. Getting a real syringe behind bars is understandably difficult, so prisoners make due with the resources they have. It's all about getting the dope in their veins, and they won't let anything stop them.
BOOKS: "Dude got some Air Force 1's, size 11. He wants 25 books for them."
In prison, books of stamps are used as currency. Whatever they want to buy they can get with stamps. Prisoners purchase them at the commissary, but they lose value as soon as they hit the yard. A book of stamps is only worth $6 on the yard even though it costs $9 in the store. That's prison economics. You can get an onion, tomato, and green pepper from the chow hall for a book of stamps, or a cap (a Chap Stick cap used as a measuring device) of weed for four books.
CAR: "That guy's in the New York car. If you fuck with him, you'll have to deal with all of them."
A car is a group of prisoners who ride together on the yard if anything jumps off. In prison it's all about your allies. You can be in a car based on your race, geographical affiliation, or what gang you're in.
CHECK IN: "You know that dude Psycho who owed me $250 for those papers? Punk-ass motherfucker checked in."
When you check in to the "hole"—or Special Housing Unit, as the correctional officers (COs) call it—you go voluntarily because you don't want to be on the yard for whatever reason: You owe money, someone is going to beat your ass, you have burned all your bridges, and it's not looking good for you. So you check in and wait to get transferred to another prison. A check-in can be a strategic move to stick someone with a drug debt or to get away from trouble.
DRAMA: "The drama popped off on the yard after the basketball game between B-more and New York."
Drama in prison parlance means a fight or an assault. If the drama is about to get thick on the yard, then prisoners know to stay in their unit (sleeping quarters) because violence will be popping off between two different cars.
EDUCATION: "I gotta go to education after lunch. I gotta call out for GED class."
Education is where inmates can take GED or college classes, consult the law library, use a word processor, make photocopies, or check out books. Many prisoners spend a lot of time in education.
FISH: "How many fish we got in the block off the bus today?"
This is the term used for new prisoners. A fish is naive to the politics of the yard and how things transpire. Usually a convict will school a fish as to how things operate.
GUMP: "That gump whopped that motherfucker's ass. Told him he could suck his dick."
A gump is what prisoners call a gay man on the inside. Some inmates think if a man sucks dick, he's not tough, but some will fight and even shank your ass, so don't underestimate them.
HOOCH: "I like to use grape juice for my batches. A little sugar, some yeast to kick it off, grape juice for the taste, and I can brew some mean hooch."
Hooch is what prisoners call the wine they make. A lot of sugar, some fruit or juice, and some yeast, and you have all the ingredients you need to make a batch of hooch. Put it all in a trash bag, drop a stinger in it (an electrical device that you place in water to cook food), wrap it up tight, and let it cook off. About five days later, you've got some primo hooch that you can sell for two books a quart.
IN THE CUT: "Dude is back in the cut handling his business. I wouldn't go around there right now."
Being in the cut means you are in an out-of-the-way spot, like a mop closet or bathroom—anywhere the cameras can't see you. There are many reasons to be in the cut: conducting drug deals, taking drugs, handling some business, pressing someone or shaking him down. In most units and on the yard, there are several places in the cut that the camera can't see.
JAUNT: "You got that jaunt? I'm trying to go."
This is a bastardized way of saying joint and can refer to anything such as a shank, razor, or other type of weapon. It can also refer to a book of stamps, the commissary, drugs, a book or magazine, workout gloves, food from the chow hall, and so on. It's a way to ask for something from another prisoner in front of the cops without letting on what you're talking about.
KEISTER: "I got dude going in the VI [visiting room] and getting an OZ [an ounce of weed or K2] in for me. It's already wrapped up and sent to his people. All he has to do is go to the bathroom and keister it."
In the penitentiary, it's a constant struggle to find places to hide contraband like drugs, cell phones, shanks, and tobacco. COs are constantly shaking down prisoners, their belongings, and their cells. So prisoners came up with the ultimate hiding place. They started keistering items in their anal cavities. If you want to see what it's like, wrap a D battery in duct tape, lube it up, and stick it up your ass.
LA RAZA: "What's up, dude? You don't want any problems with La Raza."
La Raza is the term unaffiliated Mexicans, as opposed to those involved in cartels or gangs like Border Brothers or Neros, use to identify themselves.
MEXICAN MAFIA: "The Mexican Mafia runs all the drugs and contraband on this compound. If you want anything, you have to go through them."
Another vicious prison gang, also known as La Eme (Spanish for the M), the Mexican Mafia is composed of Americans of Mexican heritage. They have a brutal reputation and make the street gangs in California pay a tax to operate. If they don't, they get punished when they end up in prison.
NO GOOD: "Dude ain't no good. They sent some kites about him before he got here. He's a check-in artist."
The prison system is like a fish bowl, and if you get a jacket as a no-good dude, then it will follow you from prison to prison. Inmates who check in to the hole to avoid paying debts or go into protective custody (PC) after snitching on dudes they owe money are branded as no-good motherfuckers, and their reputation follows them wherever they go.
ON THE COUNT: "When I hit the yard at Leavenworth I had to get on the count. That's how I do my time."
Being on the count means representing your car. If you want other prisoners to have your back, you need to be on the count, and that means running to help anybody in your car when the drama pops off.
PAPERS: "Dude in Helena Unit got papers for a hundred dollars each."
If somebody in prison is selling papers, it's usually heroin, meth, or cocaine. They call it papers because they use a ripped-off piece of paper to package the drugs. Sometimes they will cut off a corner of an envelope. The drugs are placed in the paper, folded up, and taped.
QUIET TIME: "You know this fucking CO is gonna enforce that quiet-time bullshit after count."
After the 10 PM count, when the COs turn off the lights in the unit and common areas, it's quiet time. You can watch TV or play cards or anything like that, but if you get loud, the TV rooms and common areas will be shut down by the COs, and you will have to go to your cell before lockdown.
ROLL CALL: "The shot caller called the whole car out to the yard for roll call."
Roll call is a mandatory meeting for your car. When the shot caller tells everyone to go out to the yard, you have to show your face or lose the protection and respect of your car.
SEND-IN/SEND-OUT: "I got hundred-dollar papers, but I don't want store. I need a send-in or send-out."
When you buy drugs or other items in prison, you can either pay with books or store or do a send-in, send-out or street-to-street transaction. A send-in is when you get your people out in the world to put money in the commissary account of the prisoner you owe. A send-out is when you transfer money from your account to the prisoner's people out in the world. A street-to-street is when you get your people to send money to his people.
SHOT CALLER: "He said the unit rep had to get with the shot caller on the yard and see what's up. They're trying to make it right. I hope so or shit's gonna pop off."
A shot caller is the boss of the car. There is usually an overall shot caller on the yard for each race, and the different shot callers confer to try to resolve conflicts.
STORE: "I got a cap for you, but I need $25 in store."
A prisoner's store is what he has in his commissary account. Every prison has a commissary with items like soda, candy bars, gym shoes, sweats, and stationery supplies. Inmates are allowed to go to the commissary once a week to buy items if they have money in their account.
TUCHIE: "They said that tuchie is going around on the yard."
Tuchie is what inmates call K2 (synthetic marijuana), and in the past several years tuchie has become very big in prison because it can't be detected in urine samples.
UA: "Fuck, I just got called to the lieutenant's office for a UA."
Due to the abundance of drugs in prison, inmates are drug-tested all the time. COs conduct random urinalysis on prisoners. You can also get on the hot list and get tested monthly if you are suspected of doing drugs. Prisoners and guards alike call them UAs.
VIC: "I'm about to put that move down—I got myself a vic."
This is shorthand for victim. Prison is very predatory, and convicts are always scheming on ways to get money. Finding a vic or another prisoner you can rob or extort is a common way to make money on the inside and pay your drug or gambling debts.
WOLF TICKETS: "You can't sell no wolf tickets in the pen. Motherfuckers will expose that shit."
Selling wolf tickets is writing checks you can't cash. In prison it is better to be known as a man who handles his business rather than a dude who talks about doing stuff but never acts. A real man isn't going to talk about stabbing you—he's just going to do it. Actions speak louder than words in the netherworld of corruption and violence.
X'D OUT: "Dude is running his mouth too much. He needs to get X'd out."
Prisoners can green-light members of rival gangs or put a hit on them due to some drama or dispute. When they do this, they commonly say the dude is X'd out. An X'd-out prisoner's days on the yard are numbered.
YARD:"I'm gonna go and hit the yard and see what's up."
The yard, also known as the pound, is shorthand for prison compound. The yard is where recreational activities, like working out and playing sports, take place. It's a main gathering place in the prison, and a lot of fights pop off here.
ZOO-ZOOS: "I can't wait till I hit the pound and get me some zoo-zoos and wham-whams."
Zoo-zoos and wham-whams can be candy, junk food, or any type of item from the commissary with sugar in it. If a prisoner has been in transit or in the hole, where access to those food items is denied, they will be jonesing for them when they get out.