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Cadillac? Jail? Prisoners' dictionary explains how words change meaning behind bars

File photo | Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Prisoners at Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Corrections Center in Bonne Terre, MO produced the dictionary.

If there’s one thing Stuart Grebing has learned to love in his 28 years in prison, it’s his Cadillac. At the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Corrections Center in Bonne Terre, a “Cadillac” is defined as “Coffee prepared with a full range of condiments.“ It’s one of the terms important to life in Bonne Terre.

It's not the only word that doesn't quite mean what non-inmates assume. Take, for example, the word jail. In prison, “jail” is a verb; it's something you can do well.

“The term jail came around not as what you’re housed in, but that you’re able to carry on a mutual respect with the individual you are forced to live in this small cubicle with,” said Grebing, who is 51.

The Prison Dictionary was produced by Saint Louis University's Prison Program and Inmates at ERDCC
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
The Prison Dictionary was produced by Saint Louis University's Prison Program and Inmates at ERDCC

Grebing and other prisoners have produced a Prison Dictionary that records more than 60 words that prisoners, and even some guards, use regularly. The project came from a workshop led by Paul Lynch, 44, associate professor of English, as part of Saint Louis University’s Prison Program. The dictionary shows how day-to-day English words take on different meanings inside the prison.

Lynch describes the process of creating the book as "meticulous," with prisoners poring over words for hours. They modeled the project after the world’s foremost English dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary.  First, prisoners gathered terms, then worked together to define them. Next, they took the list of hundreds of words and winnowed it down. They excluded words that, when exposed, would be dangerous for prisoners and the project.

“We didn’t want to jeopardize the project by appearing to concentrate on only the sort of salacious or prurient details that someone might expect out of prison dictionary,” said Lynch. 

After deciding what words would be included, they wrote reflections on the process. The words, their definitions and some reflections were then published by SLU’s Prison Program. For Lynch the language gathered from the dictionary exposed a kind of prison ethics.

“If you’re on the outside, you assume this is a group of people that have to be kept in line by others. But what I was struck with were how many words were dedicated to their own self-monitoring,” said Lynch. “There’s an ethics to being a good prisoner in the way other prisoners will recognize.”

For inmate David Rivera, 58, the project wasn’t so much about ethics as social standing.

Stuart Grebing, 51, and David Rivera, 58 worked on the dictionary with other prisoners.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Stuart Grebing, 51, and David Rivera, 58, worked on the dictionary with a handful of other prisoners.

“There’s actual tiers of society within the society,” he said. “You’re going to show more respect for the guy that’s been here his whole life than the guy that’s only been here two years.”

The terms when used inside the prison illuminate that respect and explain what behaviors can cause certain offenders to lose that respect.  One example is the term "Viking," which refers to a prisoner who avoids good hygiene. 

Rivera said the entire process of developing the dictionary helped him better understand language as a whole.

“I realized the word has a birth, a death, and it has an in-between when it [morphs] into whatever the cultural needs are,” said Rivera.

Both Rivera and Grebing said developing the dictionary helps bridge the gap between old and young offenders, as well as inmates serving life sentences and recent arrivals. Grebing admits talking to prisoners from a younger generation can be a challenge.

“Whether in softball or in handball or at the weight pile or whatever, you hear a conversation go on and you’re lost. You don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. 

This conflict of terminology led to significant debate among prisoners during the time devoted to the project. Many of the words were especially tied to the sense of self for those serving long sentences.

“These guys stood up for these words, it was like, 'Dude, don’t get so excited!' It’s part of them, part of their history, part of their life, and you’re saying it’s not important enough, and they’re like, 'What do you mean, it’s not important? It’s part of me.'”

ERDCC where the dictionary was produced
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Corrections Center

Rivera, Grebing and Lynch all want the dictionary to help people better understand life behind bars. Yet each hopes it’s received in a different way.

Lynch worries about the dictionary terms being appropriated by people outside the prison system.

“The worst result would be for people to use the words in their own speech in a way that trivialized the real issues that are manifested in these terms,” he said.

Rivera hopes it helps ensure prisoners aren’t forgotten by “outside” society.

“The only difference between prison and out there, in some communities, is that we’re forgotten in here,” he said.

Grebing said he hopes the document shows people that some prisoners aren’t wasting their time behind bars.

“We’re putting forth work towards an end goal to something instead of just sitting in a cell.”

According to the prisoners they have more than enough words and time to produce a second dictionary. The Prison Dictionary will be available to the public June 27th through July 25th at Fort Gondo on Cherokee Street as part of their exhibit "A Glimpse Inside the Box: Work from St. Louis University's Prison Arts and Education Program." The show will also includes work by Grebing and Rivera.