Learning the Lingo

Learning the Lingo

Learning the Lingo

Slamming doors, bright lights, overhead cameras, badges, cuffs, and 900 women inmates. Nothing in life had prepared me for a harsh wilderness. Prison had its own raw language. The day I fell, I realized, I better learn the lingo quick. Learning the Lingo

Fall v. (falling, fallen) – move downward quickly and without control; become less or lower, be captured or defeated in a battle.

Falling also means the day you enter prison. It is not a forward and willing launch like Thelma and Louise; it is a backward collapse through a trapdoor. The brain goes quiet; you become a body without control. You exist breath to breath. Cuffed, you are led to transport. Trees are no longer alive, gravel is soundless. Minutes, hours are meaningless. It is your first submersion into total obedience—your opinions, your anger, your tears are futile. The self disappears.

Falling is the title of my book, expected to be published in 2020.

Karen’s Coffee Creek “Learning the Lingo” Glossary

Learning the Lingo
“Big House”

Big House: Penitentiary, The Slammer, The Joint, Full Custody Prison, not some soft-time summer camp. It means murderers, assailants, arsonists, terrorists, various and sundry thieves of things and identity, drug peddlers of quantity. In the Bird Man of Alcatraz days it was a rough bunch. With today’s tough on crime laws, three strikes you are out, and mandatory minimums, everyone is locked up. Moms  and murderers crammed together, side by side. 

Bubble: A glass outpost that is assigned to a DOC staff person that sits between housing units. It is back up security/observation to the guard on duty in the units. The most difficult part of the job would be to stay awake and watch the same women day after day, just sitting and watching TV. It is a common post for the cop with a knee replacement or the cop who is accused of flirting with a sexy twenty year old.

Learning the LingoThe Cage: A chain link dog kennel, sides and top, human size. It is used in Segregation for one hour of outdoor privileges, once a week. It is visible and shouting distance from the other yards and therefore proof the caged inmate is still alive.

Call-out: Posted list of the inmate’s daily schedule. For example:

  • Smith, Sally SID # 8888888
  • Kitchen 5:30 am
  • Kitchen 11:00 am
  • Kitchen 4:30 pm
  • Chapel  7:30 pm

If you miss a call out because you forgot to look or did not write it down, you will be written up and disciplined.

Canteen: A source for inmates to purchase items to supplement the basic issue of bedding, prison scrubs or Blues, worn out tennis shoes, baking soda toothpaste, lye soap. The primary purchases are new tennis shoes, and junk food, ramen soup and instant coffee. Basics such as tampons, shampoo, toothpaste are purchased from inmate paychecks. My first paycheck was about $30.00 for one month. The products are not top shelf, many are discontinued or no-name brands. Nevertheless, it means so much to the inmates and teaches financial planning.

Captain Sav-a Ho: An officer, usually a man, who blurs the boundaries of helpfulness between staff and an inmate. It may be genuine advice, however, guidance of this nature does not happen the the ugly girls.

Carnival Clean-up Crew: Inmates trained in clean up of blood borne pathogens. Duties include mopping up blood from a cutter or a fight, and decontaminating menstrual blood, urine and feces. As a reward, the job that pays decently (for prison wages), and requires only occasional work.

Learning the Lingo
Carney Rot: Toe fungus from the showers.

Carney Rot: Toe fungus from the showers.

Cell-in: The inmate is required to go their cell and stay there. It can be for security reasons, dayroom closure, or discipline. It is a prison “time-out”.

Cheeking: Placing medication under the tongue or tucked into the cheek. A successful outcome would mean the medication made it back to the unit for recreational use, for sale, and trade, or for storage. The medication is difficult to hide. Slitting and resewing mattresses, taping medication to the undersides of desks or bunks has all been thought of before or discussed at the yearly Mean School. Disciplinary action is swift and severe.

Chomo, Cho: Child molester or anyone with a child related crime. It can range from death and physical abuse of a child to neglect/starvation, forced prostitution and pornography. Their life is the lowest level of hell in prison. In a women’s prison, they are ostracized and ridiculed. Prison justice is carried out with a pitcher of pee flung onto their bunk during cell sanitation. In a men’s prison, their name appears in the corner of the local paper: death while incarcerated.

Con Marche: A large blue recycle bin in each unit that contains clothing that is meant to be returned to the Clothing Room. The Con Marche is a place to trade-up and improve your status. It is against the law and teaches an honest woman how to steal. As a desirable item appears, the grab ‘n go technique is implemented. Next, the inmate progresses to the grab, hide ‘n go in the chow line, grabbing extra fruit, right in front of the guard. Prison teaches all the wrong things.

Cops, Po-Po, PO-lice, Badges, Guards, Pigs, Bacon: The staff of DOC. Their preferred description is similar to the military beginning with the uniformed Officer, Corporal, Sargent, Lieutenant, Captain. The next level wears street clothes and are no longer called wardens, they are Superintendents and Administrators.

Counting Jiggs: A spotter for skullduggery. The primary post is outside the showers so that two or more women can have hasty sex. The secondary post is lookout while a fight, typically lasting no longer than two or three quick slugs.

Crop Dusting, Drive by, anonymous and planned flatulence. It is used as a passive aggressive weapon to both inmates who are stuck at their post, and deserve cruel prison justice.

Cutter: Causing self harm usually cutting with a lady shaver, or something even blunter since sharps are not allowed. As a consequence, scarring is dramatic. The woman who cuts becomes difficult to house as no one wants to come home to a bloody home, especially an 6 x 12 for two.

Dayroom: The living room of the unit. It includes TV’s tables, laundry, telephones, the Call Out Bulletin Board all under the command of the officer’s podium. It is the place to alleviate the boredom of cell life.

DOC: Department of Corrections. The Man. The power machine. Your may be right but they are always righter.

Learning the Lingo
Oregon Department of Corrections

D.R.: Disciplinary Report. Progressive discipline begins with a cell-in. A D.R is next and means that you lose your job, your honor unit and land in the hole. Any inmate can get a D.R. Oppression and obedience dulls thinking, we get careless, or perhaps we caught a cold and just want to horde and extra orange.

Exorcist: A head-spinning punch on the jaw. Women in prison don’t just bitch slap, they square off and box. The anger of confinement is fuel for the swing.

Fall: Arriving and beginning a sentence in prison. It is the day that creates a definitive line in your life and the life of your loved ones, life before prison and after prison. Your fall date is the question that is often asked by other inmates. It represents a measure of how much you know about surviving in a women’s prison.

Fishing: The game of passing items back and forth under the cell door in segregation. Much like billiards the game involved physics and mathematics,often aided with dental floss. “I grew calluses on my knees from fishing. I didn’t need anything but played just to pass the time,” said Miss Clever

Front street: 1. A location across from the podium or some other obviously visible location. 2. To be personally revealed either by your own hand or someone else’s betrayal. For example, an inmate reveals personal facts about herself that are exploitable or you receive the Judas kiss and are put in in a vulnerable position, put on front street, or “thrown under the bus”.

Flatback Ho, Top Dolla Ho, Golf Cart Ho, Snow Ho: Flat back is a Ho who actually has to lie down to get paid instead of extracting payment from scheming or providing a John the pleasure of her company. A Top Dolla Ho is an expensive call girl. A Golf Cart Ho is just that, a woman who works the seniors and can literally work the golf courses in a cart. When I lived in Minnesota,  a prostitution ring was busted for servicing the ice fishermen, Snow Ho’s rode snow mobiles from fish house to fish house on the frozen confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.

Ho Bath/PTA: Pussy, tits and ass clean-up it the sink, or between Johns in the Shell gas station.

Hole, Hole Time: Living/doing time in segregation. It is like falling again. It is relentlessly bright and filled with noisy bitches.

Ho Stro: Whore street, the corner, the turf, the beat of a prostitute’s territory. In prison it might be a way to describe a swagger, “she be lookin’ like she walkin’ the Ho Stro, workin’ it and trolling for a cup of coffee.

In the Vest: Certifiably having a break from mental health. It is both literal and figurative. Women are placed in a restraining garment to avoid harm to self and others, mostly self. Overhead cameras cannot stop a suicide if the person is determined to swallow a spork so therefore they are required to live in a vest. According to a 2006 US Justice Department study, 50% of incarcerated women suffer from mental health issues. As a result, reaction and over-reaction in the dayroom is unpredictable. For no reason at all, a girl might swing, scream, or tear at their hair, or tear at or yours. We walk on egg shells.

Kick-down: Share a creature comfort such as a cup of coffee to get a another person over the hump. It is a calculated risk.

Kyte, Kyting: The written message system in prison. The inmate writes a message/request on a form and drops it into the proper delivery box. One kytes for a job, kytes for a move, kytes to be added to a church service. An inmate can drop a kyte on a DOC officer, tattling or telling the truth. The response and results are impotent.

Lifer: A person serving a prison sentence of twenty-five years or more, or to the end of her life. Life “without” means they will die locked up. Meeting a lifer requires particular etiquette. They do not suffer fools.

LOP: Loss Of Privileges. It is a prison misdemeanor and you are celled in. You are required to wear a lime green shirt which makes observation easier for the cops and the overhead cameras. DOC has you on the radar. The worst part of LOP status is that fact you have to wear your lime green shirt into the visiting room where your teenager, who already hates you for legitimate reasons, is waiting.

MacGyver, MacGyvering: Based on the 80’s television secret agent who could take simple items and recycle them into weapons or survival tools. Inmates are unparalleled recyclers. Twist ties are hair binders, pen-caps are chip bag clips. dental floss is the universal tool. Zip lock bags are utilized until they are a sieve. A tupperware bowl was crafted in the microwave as a dildo.

Mean School: In-service training for DOC and volunteers that teaches them how to behave around the inmates. They practice rodeo take-down and cuff drills. They learn about new surveillance equipment. Mean school teaches staff and volunteers not to get too comfortable, never trust, never turn your back. It takes weeks for them to return to humanity.

Mean Mug: A look of aggression toward another or a scowl to remind others how bad-ass you are even if it is posturing. There are all levels of Mean Mugging, from a simple “are you talkin’ to me?” to a full-on “I am going to kick your ass just as soon as you walk past the broom closet.” It requires practice in all levels of the mug in front of the mirror and saying with your eyes: “You are sittin’ in my seat, or You are on my last nerve and I’m gonna kick your ass and we’re both goin’ to The Hole. These looks are not for the Po Po, they are for the pecking order. Once released, if you are that lucky, they come in handy when someone doesn’t understand WHO YOU ARE and where you have been.

Mugshot: Photo taken for criminal records that will follow you the rest your life. Cameras are placed above your head to avoid shadows and the result is reptilian. Your lips bow up in the center, the corners are downcast. You look like the loser you are. Super model trick: place the tip of your tongue on the top of your front teeth. It lifts the corners of your mouth into something you salvageable, after all you will wear it around your neck for years.

Off the hook, Off the chain: Crazy/loco, not in a silly way but a dangerous way that raises the hackles on your neck that eventually will kill you from flight or fight neurotransmitters clogging your arteries. It could be a person or G Unit. It is the crazy shit that goes on in a prison that you should never tell you family, they will not sleep at night. The burden is yours to bear.

On the Chain: To be shackled with other women for transport/mobility. Not your finest moment. If you are lucky, there might be a decent soul to commiserate with, maybe learn some tips for survival.

Orders of Conduct: Conditions of Parole/Post Prison Supervision. These are the laws a parolee must maintain to stay out of trouble. Examples are weekly meetings with a parole officer, drug rehab, home inspections day or night. Parolees must be actively seeking employment or attending school. They must obtain written consent to travel. Failure to comply with terms can result in fines, additional probation or incarceration. Insult to injury, you have to pay for parole.

Pat down: Clothed search. The inmate stands in the star position, the cop slides gloved hands along sleeves, ribs, back and the Playtex cross your heart region then moves onto legs, socks and finishes with a sweep at the intersection of the inner thigh and genital region. One cop told me, “I never go past the middle of the thigh. I try not to picture what could be smuggled up in there, I have to save my appetite for lunch. I’d rather not have a sexual investigation, thank you very much. Unfortunately, I need this job.”

P.C’d Up: Protective Custody status. The inmate is placed in segregation or a single cell. It’s not a loving protection. An inmate is property of the State and the State wants to protect their property. The typical P.C’d inmate is a snitch or a chomo, or someone who committed a crime so foul, it repulses the most seasoned inmates, someone in the general population is going to hurt them. DOC keeps these little fish in a separate pool and hopes one day for a successful release into the units. Budget driven, protective custody requires expensive staffing and eventually the fish must sink or swim with the sharks.

Pimp Hand: From a hooker’s outside life, an all too common slap and worse from a pimp. Can be used as a threat, “don’t make me show you the pimp hand!” Worse than a single beating, it represents the threat of repeated physical abuse.

Prison friends: Temporary friendships that while sustaining on the inside, are terminated upon release, every woman for themselves. The addict is the most dangerous to avoid after release because the crazy life-robbing drugs make good people do desperate things. Meanwhile, it is possible to love and laugh outright with the other incarcerated women on you unit. We celebrated birthdays, cried over children, dreamed of avocados. I met women I am proud to know.

Punk: A legend in her own mind who will drop to her knees in cowardice to a person higher up the totem pole. The sign language is to swipe a finger across the chin indicating the residual bodily fluid after a vulgar subservient  act.

Put your foot in it: To cook food with soul, leaving an imprint. Some women just had a knack for taking crap food, sometimes expired and creating something so good the room went quiet.

Rape-o Status: Looking like such a clueless loser that you could be raped. In a women’s prison this is 99.9% more likely to be just a whopping insult.  For example, only a patsy (like me), would wear puffy, polyester red shorts, Rap-o status shorts, while the old timers wear prized thin red cotton shorts.

Recidivists: A return to prison after release. It has to be the worst that can happen to a personal, second only to the death of a child. The cards are stacked against the parolee, due to the gaping lack of support for integration back to society. For a Lifer, or a woman doing a stretch of time, it is a sickening waste of opportunity.

Roll up: To pack up your meager belongings into plastic bags and move. This can be good, such as going from max/medium to minimum, or earning the clear conduct to move to an honor unit. It can be bad, you broke the rules and must move down the ladder and live back in the jungle unit. It can be worse, you are shackled to the wall and lead away to the Seg unit for your gross misbehavior or it can be fatal, or might as well be, if you have to be housed in the prison medical unit.

Skins, Strip Search, Squat and Cough: A body search down to the skin. The inmate is asked to disrobe one piece of clothing at a time, shaking out each for the purpose of exposing hidden items in rolled cuffs, bras etc., until nude. The inmate is required to lift pendulous breasts, bellies and buttock cheeks. Squatting low, the inmate is ordered to spread her buttock cheeks and cough loudly. If unremarkable, the inmate is allowed to redress. As an new inmate it is deplorable. To the seasoned it is just a part of the drill. Occasionally, staff and inmates carry on a conversation during the event. Upon reflection I gotta say it must be worse for the cop.

Slip n Slide: A fall in the shiny corridors as the Po Po galumphs to a fight. An event that makes an inmate happy for weeks.

Snitch, A Teller: An informant to DOC in a court of law or a rival gang. A rat, nark, fink, teller of tales who’s poor choices results in an outcast status just above a Chomo. Newbies do it because they feel a greater kinship to the cops than the criminals. Telling is an early fuck up that can last for years.   The cops see a snitch as a threat and more dangerous than a violent criminal. She will tell on anyone, including them.

Stretch: A lengthy prison sentence, definitely in the eye of the beholder. A Lifer would dismiss anything less than four years since this means you serve 90% of your time in minimum. Warehoused. Put ’em to work I say, stuff political envelopes, pick strawberries. Anyone doing a stretch is a waste of inexpensive human services. If inmates feel useful and valuable, they will return as a contributing, empowered member of society.

Tank: Holding cell in a jail or prison. It is a bare room that contains a sink and toilet combo, all surfaces can be hosed down and sanitized. Capacity is often reached, especially if it is a jail tank. Full 24 hour observation employed. It is the gate to hell. In jail it is a place to come down on drugs and alcohol. An offender in jail is still holding out for hope and a good lawyer. An offender in prison is resigned and is no longer making deals with The Almighty, now it is more of a begging for survival. The holding cell in segregation is a place that reminds you that although you have fallen and had the worst day of your life, things are just about to get worse.

Tossed: Tossed is a cell search. A gloved cop choses a random cell and goes through bedding, drawers, shelves, shoes and clothing, looking for contraband. Some cops are thorough to to the point of testing shampoo bottles, some are just a quick scan, as in, “Please God, please don’t let me get some sort of disease from touching this disgusting woman’s underwear.” If a guard shows up with a plastic bags and gloves at your door, you are in trouble, you are moving downward and falling again.

Under the Wing of the Alpha

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My greatest fear of going to prison was the women: murderers, thieves, hookers and drug addicts. In the months before sentencing, my oldest daughter, Nikki said, “You are like Keiko the Whale, raised in captivity and released to the wild.” I worried I’d be eaten alive.  My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My prison  sentence started in the women’s unit of the county jail. The unit was a long grey rectangle with cells along it’s length and metal tables at the back. A guard led me into the unit at lunch time. I was ordered to grab a tray. The noise had been deafening in the corridor. The voices ceased when I entered the room, all eyes on the new neighbor lady. I had seen the Shawshank redemption and other prison movies. The dining rooms were always the place where the fights broke out. I scanned the tables avoiding the women’s faces. There was one seat left, my legs stilted forward. I stopped at the open seat, eyes downward. Do I ask permission? Is there such a thing as jail etiquette?

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part One
“Tizzy and Silver”

“Don’t just stand there,” said the woman to my right.  I folded myself in a tangle of stiff joints and sat down. I snuck a glance at her, she had brown wavy hair and looked about thirty-five. “I’m Tizzy.” She pointed to the two women on my left. “That’s Silver and Buzz Cut.” I tried to swivel my neck but it was frozen in fear, I forced myself to turn my whole torso.
I was surprised to see a young woman with a huge grin. She had a short brown buzz cut and strong arms. The woman next to her had silver hair and sad brown eyes. Silver asked,  “What are you in for?” 

“A car accident, I had a blood alcohol level of .08, right on the line. My husband and another woman died.” I might have been going for sympathy or perhaps I was trying to set myself apart, after all, I wasn’t a criminal.

I’m here on the same thing,” said Silver, shrugging like it was common place. “There’s no mercy about it. There’s quite a few of us in prison with similar crimes.”

“Have you been to prison?” I asked.

“All three of us were there,” said Tizzy. “ I got more charges and had to come back to court.”

“They added fines to my sentence,” said Silver.

I had no idea you could get charges added after you were in prison. I couldn’t even thin about it.

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison
“Buzz Cut”

“I came back to be with my girl,” said Buzz Cut still grinning. “ I committed a crime so I could come back and be with her.” I was stunned. She intentionally planned and committed a crime, just to return to prison to be with the girlfriend she left behind? This made no sense, but nothing made sense anymore. I looked at Tizzy and Silver for guidance but they were both suddenly focused on the mystery meat on the meal tray. 

Over the next few days the trio surprised me by being pleasant and generous with advice. They called me Karen, not Baker, which made me feel like I hadn’t disappeared completely. They began to school me in prison survival: No snitching, no stealing, shower everyday, and keep your mouth shut. I would start my sentence on the Intake Unit and be locked in a cell nearly all day. But unlike solitary, I could come out for meals, and church services.

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison“Everyone is clean, not like these people puking though withdrawal,” said Buzz Cut. She shouted into a cell where a girl had been sleeping for days. “They don’t fuckin’ smell like fish!” Then she resumed her composure and continued, “They make you shower. You get a job. The food still sucks but at least you won’t die from it.”

The way Silver, Tizzy and Buzz Cut described prison sounded like a major improvement over the living conditions in jail. But going to prison for over six years felt like the end of my life. The women weren’t my people; I still felt like Keiko.

“Look, Karen,” said Tizzy one day, “don’t think you’re cleaner than the rest of us. You killed people straight and simple. The women in there have been in and out of prison, taken every drug and stole or hooked for her habit, but they will look straight at you and say, ‘Well at least I didn’t kill anybody.’ The sooner you get over yourself, the better you’ll get along in there.”

“Yeah,” said Buzz Cut, “You gotta own it. Introduce yourself by time and crime. No one wants to hear a sad story of innocence. They just want to make sure your are not locked up for committing a crime against children. Here’s your speech: ‘I’m Karen. I’m here for a Man II/DUI car accident. I got six years, no good time, no programs.’

All along I’d called it an accident, never Man-slaughter. The excuses were like litany: Tom was supposed to be driving. I never would have driven drunk. That wasn’t me. But these women held a mirror to my face and their harsh words stung. Because whether I meant to or not, I did drink and drive and I killed people. It would take time and practice to admit to that speech. But I was a sponge, and I soaked up their advice, grateful that they had taken me under their wings.

My Fairy Godmothers in PrisonOn my 14th day in jail, I got word that the next day I would go to prison. The van would take me, Tizzy, Silver, and Buzz Cut together. These were the women I would literally be bound to on my first days. 

That night after dinner, as we celled in for the night, Tizzy called out from down the row of cells, “You’ll survive, Karen. We’ll keep an eye on you, but if you fuck up, you’re on your own.”

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

Harsh Lessons One – The Fairy Godmothers

Harsh Lessons One – The Fairy Godmothers