Culture and Word Choice at WCCW


Two more days of quarantine left. The last couple of weeks has shown me that, while this is absolutely where I belong, I also have a lot to learn if I’m going to really fit in here. Some things are small, but important like the shifts of language which are tied to a different underlying assumption in the culture here.

In the men’s prisons the underlying assumption of every interaction is one of violence. A subtle unspoken “or else” connected to every so-called request. That assumption seems to hold true when dealing with DOC staff, but I don’t want to be hasty and leap to a flawed conclusion based on flawed or incomplete data.

However, in my interactions with other inmates, I can state with certainty that violence is not the underlying assumption. I don’t know what is just yet, but I’m excited to figure it out. I’m already seeing this different assumption displayed in people’s word choice. We don’t have “cellies”. We have “roomies” and “bunkies”. The shift of focus is away from carceral language, by defining living space as a room and the person one lives with as a roommate the focus is on the space itself and the relationship with the other person. The focus is shifted away from the context surrounding that space (that is, the Prison Industrial Complex). The word bunkie is primarily used to describe the relationship between the people who share a bunk bed in the camp/work release. (In the camp a person may have a dozen roommates but only one bunkie). I have not heard a similar term in the men’s prison. The closest one gets is constructions like “the guys in my pod” which again shows an enforcement of the impersonal and the rejection of connection/relationship derived from the sharing of personal intimate space.

In the woman’s prison the terms bunkie and roomie seem to be treated as homonyms when applied to 2 person rooms (cells) with the term bunkie taking on connotations of greater connection/closer relationship when used by incarcerated women. This subtle shift of meaning seems to be lost on staff who’s usage is mostly dependent on their post history within the prison.

Other interesting shifts of language are:

It’s not commissary or store. Canteen is the word used to describe food and hygiene purchased from the prison.

It’s not talking crazy. Get crooked is the phrase used to indicate speaking disrespectfully to another person.

The phrase flip a grave is sometimes used to indicate picking a fight.

It’s not a big light or bright light. Crack light indicates the bright florescent light built into the cell.

It’s more than just language that is different, storytelling is also different. In the men’s facilities, storytelling has the specific purpose of self aggrandizement. The story teller is almost always the protagonist, or at the very least side kick to the protagonist, of the tale. Antagonists are then loosely defined as “anyone opposed to the protagonist.” Antagonists are cast as foolish, incompetent, cruel, and worthy of scorn. This pattern is especially exaggerated and codified in stories involving drug fueled “adventures” (crime sprees).

On the other hand, story telling in the women’s prison follows a very different pattern. Stories do not necessarily contain events, usually they focus on current relationships or on broken relationships. If a story is an account of some form of criminal activity, the story teller will cast herself as the antagonist, even when aggrandizing drug use. Self contradictory statements like “I was such an idiot for that, I can’t wait to get that high again” are often uttered in a single breath. This will be answered by the audience with injunctions to steer clear of that life style and drugs in general. Then someone else will tell a similar story, framing it as something foolish she did while high. Fact of incarceration, and more specifically fact of separation from loved ones, is considered proof in and of itself of poor decision making. While the storytelling itself may not show accountability, the response to such stories shows a tendency towards cultural guilt even when there isn’t a sense of personal guilt.

I believe this rejection of the normalization of criminality when paired with the rejection of carceral language forms an important part of the cultural difference between men’s and women’s facilities.


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