Prison Terms Glossary

 Administrative detention

Individuals are sent to the SHU (special housing unit, or “hole”) for either administrative or punitive reasons. The former is typically when they are believed to have information about an active investigation into misconduct and/or criminal behavior, when they are about to be transferred to another prison, or when they “check in” (seek protective custody). 


Sentence, doing time. As in “I was just doing my bid.”


Lowest level of security for a prison.


An affinity group in prison to which incarcerated individuals belong, usually defined by race, religion, geography, etc. Cars can behave a lot like gangs.

Check in

When a prisoner voluntarily enters the SHU to remove himself or herself from a dangerous situation, such as when they owe debts they can’t repay, or want to force a transfer to another prison.


Prison store


Correctional officer (the prison version of the police)

Cop out

 A request to staff (for example, for a sick call in the Medical Department), submitted via an online form.

Count / standing count

A time when prisoners are expected to be at their assigned bunk or cell and so they can be counted by the unit officer. If it’s a stand-up count, they are expected to remain quiet and standing until the prison guards walk by their cell.


Disciplinary hearing officer. When prisoners are given a shot/disciplinary report, they must appear in a hearing before a DHO (rather like going to trial, without a jury).

Federal Correctional Complex (FCC)

The name for an entire federal prison complex, which often includes both high- and medium-security prisons.

Federal Correctional Institution (FCI)

Medium-security prison

Grievance / administrative remedy / BP-8, 9, 10, 11 forms

These are the basic steps in the internal prison grievance process. When an incarcerated individual wants to file a complaint, he or she must file within 20 days of the incident. The BP-8, also called an “informal complaint,” comes first and is filed with the staff involved.

If the complaint cannot be or is not resolved informally, the next step is to file a BP-9 with the warden (which must be within 30 days of receiving the BP-8 response). If the response is not satisfactory, a BP-10 can be submitted to the regional director within 20 days. Once the BP-10 response comes back, the final step is a BP-11, submitted within 30 days with the central FBOP office in Washington, D.C. Then the individual can finally go to the courts.

General population

Everyone in a prison who is not confined to a restricted section, such as the “hole.”

Management variable

Imposed by wardens when they decide a prisoner’s score, which determines the security level of the assigned prison, does not accurately reflect where he or she should be. In other words, it’s a convenient way for a warden to keep an individual in a more restrictive environment.


Receiving and discharge is the area of the prison where new residents are checked in and individuals who are transferring are processed for departure. 

Rec time

The time when prisoners are allowed out of their cells. That does not always mean they can go outside.


When prison staff rip apart people’s cells, supposedly looking for contraband.


Slang for getting written up/given an incident report.


The Special Investigations Service is the equivalent of the FBI, and conducts inquiries into criminal accusations within federal prisons.

Special Housing Unit (SHU)

Also called the “hole,” this is a unit to which prisoners are sent for punishment or while an investigation is conducted. Solitary confinement used to be standard, but now cellmates are routine. Most freedoms and privileges are taken away, for weeks or months at a time.

Special Management Unit (SMU)

A prison operated specifically for individuals considered “high risk,” although the criteria used to send people there are fairly vague.


A “do-it-yourself” device made by prisoners to heat water, etc. in their cells. A stinger can be made in various ways, but it usually involves using materials such as wire or metal from a light fixture. The heating element is then attached to a power source, such as a power cord that has been modified or repurposed. (Note that making a stinger is against prison rules.)


U.S. penitentiary, a high-security federal prison