Locked Up Lingo: 8 Terms That Summarize Prison Slang

Locked Up Lingo: Prison Slang

On “the inside,” which is to say, in prison, people use their own special forms of lingo and communication. The unique slang used by prisoners reflects this.

We’ve collected a few of the terms we find most interesting. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use any of them yourself …


In the outside world, you have bank accounts and wire transfers to send and receive money. In prison, you may rely on JPay.

MIT doctoral student Ryan Shapiro founded JPay in 2002 to provide family members of prison inmates with a digital money transfer service, allowing them to send funds to incarcerated loved ones without a physical money order. The ability for inmates to receive outside funds can make a big difference, as many working inmates receive as little as 12 cents an hour.JPay has created controversy by monopolizing digital prison communications … as well as the small fact that the company profits off prisoners.

When discussing money transfers or communication services for prison inmates, people might casually refer to the company JPay as jay pay. Alternatively, one could also use jay pay as a verb to describe sending money to an inmate. For example, “My brother Joe is in prison, so I’m going to jay pay him some funds to get him through the week.” (Jay payed is sometimes used for the past tense.)


There isn’t any Gmail in prison. Instead, prisoners and their families rely on CorrLinks. CorrLinks is an email system used by federal prison inmates to communicate with their friends and families.

Not all inmates are given access to CorrLinks based on their crimes, but the many who are pay a fee per message, usually around $0.25–0.30. CorrLinks doesn’t permit images or attachments, and all correspondence is monitored, so delivery of messages to and from an inmate is delayed.CorrLinks has notably appeared in hip-hop songs by artists who have served time or who are critiquing the mass incarceration of black male youth. Rapper Kodak Black brought the term into the mainstream with his 2017 single, “Corrlinks and JPay.”

In the hip-hop community, CorrLinks has become a stand-in for life in prison more generally, a symbol of the limited means of communication inmates have with the outside world—but an absolutely essential lifeline nonetheless.

fish & car

In high school and college, new kids are freshmen. On a sports team, they’re dubbed “rookies.” But, when you’re new to prison, you’re a fish.

It’s not good to be a fish. You don’t know the rules of prison, and other people might try to take advantage of you. If you’re a smart fish, you’ll find a car (a group of prisoners who look after one another) quickly.


One of the worst places to get locked up under US jurisdiction is Gitmo, a military prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.Gitmo specifically named the detention camp once President George W. Bush ordered its establishment in January, 2002 as a holding facility for al-Qaeda and Taliban-aligned terrorists captured during the so-called War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks.

Interest in the secretive Gitmo spiked in 2005 over the human and legal rights of prisoners held there. It was widely reported that tactics included denial of food and drink and subjection to extreme temperatures, which violate the Geneva Convention rules for humane treatment of prisoners of war. Later accounts reported more forms of torture, including waterboarding, forcing prisoners to stand for long periods of time, making them go without clothing, disrespecting their holy texts, and subjecting them to months-long periods of isolation.

As of May 2018, there were 40 detainees still held at Gitmo.

teardrop tattoo

Getting tattoos is a big part of prison culture. Tattoos not only show how tough you are, they signal important information about your gang affiliations or where you’re from.

One of these is a teardrop tattoo, a small tattoo in the shape of a teardrop near one or both eyes. It is closely associated with gang and prison culture, where it often indicates one has served time, one has been humiliated, or one has killed (this version often appears under the left eye). Others may get such a tattoo to represent sorrow or loss. The symbolism of the teardrop tattoo widely varies.

Notable wearers are said to include 2015 convicted felon Jeremy Meeks, who went viral for an attractive mugshot.


One of the omni-present forces in American prisons is the AN (Aryan Nation). They have many codes and symbols they use to show their allegiance to one another.

1488, along with other variations, is a secret code used by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists to identify and signal their ideology.The numbers 14 and 88, used in various combinations, are a code used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists to broadcast hate speech in a covert manner and to show their alliance with others in their movement. The number 14 refers to David Lane, a notorious white supremacist leader and murderer, who at one point issued the 14-word statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

The number 88 refers to the fact that H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 is HH. This stands for “Heil Hitler,” part of the historic Nazi salute.


Nickel is a slang term for “five” of anything, most commonly a five-dollar or small bag of drugs … but it could also be a five-year prison sentence.Nickel, as in doing a nickel or “serving a five-year prison sentence,” was used as early as 1953. It was sometimes combined with dime for a ten-year sentence (e.g., doing a nickel-and-dime, or 15 years). This is not to be confused with nickel-and-dime as in a small-scale business or being ripped off with small up-charges.

By 1966, a nickel bag was referring to a $5 bag of drugs, usually weed or heroin. A dime bag, by contrast, was $10 of drugs.


To most of us, pie conjures up an image of a pastry with fruit filling, yum … but to drug dealers (or users) pie refers to a kilogram of drugs, usually cocaine.

The slang pie is evidenced by the 1990s. A dealer would get a kilogram (kilo) of cocaine and cut it up for lower-level dealers to distribute—like a regular pie, just for a very different kind of craving.

This pie was first just used as a reference to drugs by those in the urban drug-dealing community. It spread to a wider audience when black hip-hop artists incorporated the drug-dealing lingo into their hit songs.

In 1997, for instance, rapper Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs released “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” on his first solo album No Way Out, a Billboard #1 hit. The track featured rapper Mase, who says of Combs: “There’s no guy slicker than this young fly nigga…Did Fed time, outta town pie-flipper.” Pie-flipper alludes to Combs’s short-lived drug-dealing when he was a student at Howard University, though he never served Fed time, or a federal prison sentence.

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