Like most large organizations and systems, prisons have their own jargon. Let us tell you what words mean because words matter. Words create knowledge.
Understanding these terms will help you understand the harshness, the acts of kindness, the madness, the cruelty, the resilience, the hope and the innovation that permeates this system.
Administrative Segregation unit (see: The Hole): One of the terms the Department of Corrections uses to describe a housing unit where individuals are kept in a cell for at least 20 hours per day, with limited property and little out-of-cell time.
Chow lines: Most incarcerated people receive three meals at the prison’s “chow hall,” a building that is separated from the housing units. People are released from each housing unit, one section at a time, to walk to the chow hall, go through the tray pickup line (the “chow line”), and sit down at a table to eat the meal. Each person is only given 5 to 7 minutes to eat the meal.
CO (corrections officer): Department employees who are largely responsible for security and enforcing rules in a prison.
CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct): A collection of crimes that include either sexual contact (CSC in the 2nd degree; CSC in the 4th degree) or sexual penetration (CSC in the 1st degree; CSC in the 3rd degree).
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Therapy used by the Department of Corrections to help people (1) learn about the triggers that lead them to inappropriate reactions and to (2) learn coping skills to help them avoid undesired reactions.
Double bunking: Two people sharing a small room (approximately 10 feet by 10 feet). Incarcerated people are NOT allowed to choose their roommates, or “bunkies.” People in power in the administration can use bunkie assignments to punish and/or reward people in prison. Today almost all prisons in Michigan double-bunk rooms that were built for one person.
First-degree murder: While first-degree murder is often referred to as “premeditated” murder, in Michigan a person will also be found guilty of first-degree murder if the person killed was a police or corrections officer or if the person died during the commission of another felony (or felony murder). It is the most serious of homicide offenses and results in a sentence of mandatory life without the possibility of parole, unless the person charged with the offense was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.
General population: The general population (“gen-pop,” or more frequently “GP”) is the population of incarcerated people at any facility that are not in solitary confinement.
Grievance: A procedure that allows an incarcerated person to challenge a policy, procedure or unsatisfactory condition of confinement. The Department of Corrections grievance policy is generally viewed as ineffective, with grievances routinely rejected without thorough investigation or consideration.
Leave to appeal: In Michigan, a person only has an appeal by right (i.e., a guaranteed right to appeal their sentence and/or conviction) before the Michigan Court of Appeals if they went to trial. Everybody else (those who plead guilty or no-contest, which is the vast majority of people sent to prison) has to ask the Court of Appeals for permission to consider their appeal; this request is called “leave to appeal.” Leave may be granted or denied. All appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court are by leave.
Good Time: A system that rewards incarcerated people for good behavior. This is in the form of a reduction in a person’s minimum sentence for every month served without being cited for misconduct.
Greyhound Inmate Experience: A nonprofit 501(c)(3) Michigan volunteer organization. Their purpose is to socialize, train and care for retired greyhounds in a prison environment and to educate the public of the redemptive qualities and rehabilitative benefits of the program.
Habitual Criminal Act: The act permits judges to increase the maximum sentence for a person convicted of a felony if they have had one or more previous felony convictions.
The Hole: See Administrative Segregation.
JPay: Service offered by the privately owned prison communications company Securus. It offers limited email service to and from incarcerated people at a relatively high cost.
Kite: An incarcerated person’s written request for information or services.
Kiosks: Stations where people in prison can sync their JPay tablets, buy media (music is $1.99 a song and games are as much as $6.00 for a game), place store orders and manage their accounts. There are usually two kiosks per each unit, which houses between 150 and 190 people.
Lifer: A person serving a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) or life with parole.
Life With Possibility of Parole: In Michigan, people who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole are eligible to be released from prison after serving 10 or 15 years.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: A sentence that, based on the crime of conviction, must be imposed by the judge. Michigan has only one such sentence: two years for a felony firearm conviction.
Parole: The release of an incarcerated person after he or she has served the minimum sentence and before serving the maximum sentence. In Michigan, paroles are issued by a politically appointed 10-member board.
Plea deal: An agreement in which someone accused of a crime agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Prisoner: Term used in Michigan to refer to a person sentenced to more than one year in a state prison for a felony. Any felony sentence below a year that must be served in a locked place is served in jail, and people are then referred to as inmates. NOTE: We prefer to refer to people as people, not as prisoners or inmates.
Residential Treatment Program (RTP): A housing unit where people with serious mental illnesses (SMIs) are housed. These people must have a clinical (Axis I) diagnosis, and almost all people in RTP are taking some form of medication to address their mental health needs.
Security Level: People incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons are housed in one of five security levels: I, II, IV, V and administrative segregation. Level I is the least secure level. The security level is determined by completing the Security Classification Screen form for the individual and is based upon factors related to the length of sentence, time served and behavior while incarcerated.
Six “man” cell: Cubes, usually in a pole barn setting, with three two-person bunk beds. Cubes may also contain eight or 12 people. The settings are noisy and provide no privacy.
T.I.S. (Truth in Sentencing): Truth in sentencing laws are enacted to reduce the possibility of early release from incarceration. They require offenders to serve a substantial portion of the prison sentence imposed by the court before being eligible for release. In Michigan, a person must serve his or her entire minimum sentence before being eligible for release.
Wet cell: A cell that has a toilet and sink. Many wet cells now house two people. These cells are usually 10 by 10 feet, with bunk beds, a small desk for one, a single chair, two stand-up lockers, two footlockers, a toilet and a sink. People must use the toilet in front of one another or make agreements to leave one another alone while the other is using it.
Yard: Most prisons have two places where incarcerated people can stretch their legs. Small yard is a fenced area outside of many level I and level II units. Big yard is a place where there is a large track to walk, maybe a weight pit, and space to lounge in the grass. For people in level IV, V and administrative segregation, yard time is very limited. The higher the security level, the more restrictive the movement. People in the hole are only entitled to one hour outside and alone per day, five days a week in a setting similar to a dog kennel. All yard times are scheduled and limited.