All the right words for doing bird
A new guide will help lawyers to understand the ins and outs of prison slang, says Grania Langdon-Down
Wednesday 08 January 1997
Language can be a barrier as well as a passport to understanding and prison slang is no exception. Translated, the prisoner is saying: "I've been remanded by the judge for social inquiry reports. I'm really worried the judge is going to sentence me harshly at the crown court to six months or more." (A carpet is a three-month sentence - long enough to weave one).
Angela Devlin, a former special needs teacher and prison researcher, has compiled Prison Patter (Waterside Press, pounds 12), a dictionary of 2,500 items of slang and officialese used in prison.
Mrs Devlin believes it is vital that prisoners build a rapport with their legal representatives but language can prove a barrier in addition to race, class and gender.
"No one is expecting lawyers to lapse into prison speak but they need to understand its subtleties to get a feel for the reality of life in prison," she says. "I was talking to a duty solicitor at one of the airports and I was shocked when he said how boring his work was dealing with so many `mules' - drug couriers. It may be a defence mechanism to depersonalise clients. But by calling someone a mule it is much easier not to think of the desperation and poverty that drove them to fly across the world, leaving their children, and to shut yourself off from what an eight-year prison sentence will mean to them."
Prisoners resort to humour to help them survive, with expressions like ghosted (spirited away to another prison overnight), green and friendly (prison phonecard), playtime in the Wendy House (out of cells for association with other prisoners), plastic gangster (phoney tough guy) and dock asthma (when a prisoner gasps in surprise at accusations in court).
But much of the slang concerns violence, with many words for self-mutilation (scratcher, slasher, slicer), a secret drugs code and the many tensions between prisoners and prison officers (32 entries from kangaroo to Scoobie Doo - both rhyming slang for screw) and police (25 entries from defective to Lying Squad).
Much of the official language does indeed have the effect of depersonalising prisoners, such as bodies, disposals or numbers, BFM (breast-feeding mother) and emergency handout (baby separated from its mother and handed over to a social services department).
Professor Andrew Rutherford, chairman of the Howard League, says: "Prison patter reflects fears of violence, sexual identity, drugs. Magistrates and judges go on conducted tours of spruced-up prisons, while some lawyers are in and out all the time seeing clients.
"But not many see the reality of what goes on after the gates close behind them. The book could be an amusing little present for lawyers but it also provides a lot to think about on a much deeper level".
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