The small gray box isn’t much to look at, compared to elegant, antiquated books spread out and labeled on tables in the next room. But inside are several words so colorful they could make your mother’s hair curl, written on index cards — many yellowed with age — that document slang once used by inmates in the Utah State Prison.
Some of the terms describe different types of inmates, like “collector” (an “inmate who fights for others or collects debts for a fee”), “preacher” (a ”religious fanatic”) and “prodder” (someone who uses a hypodermic needle to inject drugs). Others describe prison facilities, like “cracker box” (a “jail or detention cell from which it is easy to escape”).
Many refer to violence, including “put the boots to” (to kick a person after they’ve been knocked down), and “persuader” (a gun, or an officer’s nightstick).
But some are slyly humorous, like “school,” which refers to prison. That particular card includes the use of the term in a sentence: “I’ve graduated from some of the best schools in the country.”
About 30 years of history in one box
The shoebox-sized file of about 1,500 cards is a “rich record” of how inmates talked between the early 1950s and about 1980, and a “really unexpected, unique view” into what life was like for prisoners back then, said Jim Kichas, assistant director of the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, aka the Utah State Archives.
He and his co-workers discovered the box when they obtained a collection of records from the Utah Department of Corrections last year. The variety of documents that detail prisoner intake and the minutiae of running a correctional facility dates back to the 1870s, when Utah was still a territory and its main prison was located in what is now Sugar House Park.
In the 1950s, when prisoners were moved from Sugar House to the Utah State Prison in Draper, all of the Department of Corrections’ records moved with them. Today, those volumes are falling apart.
Instead of moving them to the new prison in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant when the Draper facility closes sometime this year, the Utah State Archives stepped in to “give them a good home,” preserve them and provide access to them, Kichas said.
When archive staffers first found the box, “we didn’t know what it was,” Kichas said. Now, he supposes the cards were filled out by former corrections department staff, in an attempt to maintain a working knowledge of what was being said around the prison. A lot of the slang is too graphic to be included in this story.
Beyond that, any conclusions about the cards’ origins and who thought to fill them out are simply guesses, Kichas said. The cards have been “sitting on a shelf at the Department of Corrections for who knows how long,” he added.
Some handwritten, most typed on a typewriter,each card contains a slang term, its meaning, the region in the U.S. where it was heard, and a category for every word (the word “coconuts,” referring to cocaine, for example, is categorized under “narcotics”).
Cards may be ‘the only record that ever exists of their lives’
Slang is important in the prison environment, said Randall Eggert, a linguist, assistant professor at the University of Utah, and author of “This Book Is Taboo: An Introduction to Linguistics Through Swearing.”
He compares the “intense microcosm” of prison to high school, “where you’ve got the same group of people who see each other every day, day in, day out, and just how intense that becomes,” Eggert said.
“Slang is mostly about identifying yourself, and coming with that, of course, is identifying yourself as not being one of some other group,” he continued. Once kids get to high school, identity becomes important — and slang is a way for them to express that.
In prison, Eggert said, it’s not surprising that people develop slang to “identify who you are in that system — and it’s got to be different from the guards.”
The index cards discovered by the Utah State Archives aren’t dated, and Kichas said the file’s creator probably isn’t around anymore to answer questions. “Unless I find other documentation on the records to tell me more about it, we’ve just got this cool thing,” he said.
Kaitlin Felsted, a spokesperson for the Utah State Prison, said the facility doesn’t currently maintain any record of inmate slang.
Despite its mysterious origins, the box of slang is a tiny window into the past — and the people of the past. “I think it tells us a lot about society, and what changes and what doesn’t,” Eggert said.
“You really are talking about a captive population that the state is in charge of, who are inherently having rights revoked because of whatever they did,” Kichas said. “In a lot of ways, it’s like an underserved population.”
“So, the more history we have to document the people who were in and out of this institution,” he continued, “in some cases, that might be some of the only record that ever exists of their lives.”
How to access the Utah State Archives:
If you’re conducting historical research, trying to learn more about your ancestors, or wanting to dig into the state’s history, the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service is available to help.
Archivists provide reference assistance over the phone at 801-531-3847, via email at email@example.com, and online at archives.utah.gov/research, where you can find indexes, online exhibits and guides, as well as access more than 1.5 million items digitally.
You can also visit the archives in person, but you’ll need to make an appointment, which you can do via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The agency’s research center in the Rio Grande Train Depot was displaced when the building was damaged by the March 2020 earthquake, and its temporary research center doesn’t have a public entrance.
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