Towards the Anatomy of Prison Language: The Greek Inmates Case

Dr. Aggeliki Kardara & Ioanna Asanakidi participated in the online international conference “Contemporary societies in motion: Pioneering qualitative research methods in the study of deviance and social control” [Session 9: Participatory (action) research approaches], on 27 and 28 May 2021.

Towards the Anatomy of Prison Language: The Greek Inmates Case

Ioanna Asanakidi, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Aggeliki Kardara, Center for the Study of Crime / National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


Each of the various communities of practice  (CoP)  seems to have their own developed jargon.  The language of the imprisoned reflects a quite similar impulse.  Its efficacy to the imprisoned -and the criminals in general -lies in its function as a means of communication but also as a vital means of integration into the large groups and subgroups formed within prison.  With data collected from questionnaires to 130 inmates including 30 juvenile delinquents at Avlonas Detention Center as well as 30 women and 70 men from Korydallos prison respectively, an alternative ethnographic study of prison language was developed in Greece in 2005. Apart from the meetings which were conducted in total isolation with inmate responders, a diverse methodological approach including both questionnaires and observation was employed.  The sample of the 70 aforementioned prisoners was deeper investigated in the course of 10 sequential, individual structured interviews. The longitudinal study and on-spot investigation provided significant results reflecting on various areas of concern such as prison language usage, formation, functions, purposes, context, and more. One of the most significant conclusions reflects prison language or else slang, as a multidimensional, complex concept which could hardly be defined with accuracy on a purely linguistic level. Furthermore, its symbolic function encodes and externalises views,  attitudes, and perceptions of the life of the imprisoned, allowing for their integration within the enclosed groups and subgroups. It is therefore one of the most critical means of survival for detainees in the closed, restrictive, and unrelenting environment of the prison. The special language of communication code used by the incarcerated population can be further divided into two large branches:  the hard cryptographic slang used solely by prisoners inside and outside prison in order to operate their illegal activities, and the slang used to a larger extent within the closed and restrictive context of the prison, even in front of the correction officers for imitation but also for communication, as a getaway in their attempt to reduce the pains of imprisonment. Besides, the passage of time could be a key factor to unlock new traits or to ascertain the main role of language as a predominant component inside but also outside the penitentiary. Thus, subsequent to the original research, an in-depth analysis was repeated in 2018, in an attempt to determine the special linguistic code of communication of the enclosed population from a philosophical, criminological, psychological, literary, and linguistic point of view. At Onesimos Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, a sample of 50 parolees was examined with relevant questionnaires, following a series of 12 structured interviews. The study provides fruitful evidence to the challenges of investigating the evolutionary process of prison language which may have a  ripple effect not only on the micro-community within prison but also on the international sphere of sociolinguistic and forensic linguistic research, with focus on the interpretation of prison language overtime.



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