Past Times

Past Times: Prison life was harsh in North Carolina

Inmates engaged in road work in Pitt County in 1910 were housed in wagons equipped with bunks and moved from place to place.
Inmates engaged in road work in Pitt County in 1910 were housed in wagons equipped with bunks and moved from place to place. Library of Congress

Before he coauthored the biographical novel “Cheaper by the Dozen,” Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. spent some time in Raleigh as night editor of the Associated Press. One of the things he explored was the creativity of criminal jargon. In 1936, he explained terms that many readers had heard only in the movies.

It isn’t exactly part of their job, but criminologists at State Prison have begun to form a crime glossary of underworld words and phrases used by North Carolina convicts.

The lexicography isn’t official. Language picked up at random during interviews with prisoners is merely jotted down in notebooks.

But as Oscar Pitts, acting director of the penal division, points out, the study may help criminologists in understanding “the language of the convicts.”

For instance, here’s the way one convict described his prison record to the official interviewing him:

“They caught me on the heavy and sent me to the wind swept desert. I got to be honors. I waited for a parole from Governor Green and took it on the back stretch under the gun.”

Jargon?

Not to almost any of the State’s 8,700 convicts, not to Pitts. Not to Warden H. H. Honeycutt of Central Prison.

“To put it into English,” Pitts grinned, “the prisoner being interviewed meant he was caught opening a safe. He was convicted and sent to the Caledonia Farm – that’s the ‘wind swept desert.’ He got to be an honor grade prisoner and, in the spring, escaped from a gang during a rest period while he was being watched by an armed guard.”

A page from the criminologists’ glossary:

Back stretch – rest period; recess.

Waiting for a parole from Governor Green – waiting for the spring, when leaves come out on trees, so that an escape can be effected.

Escape under the gun – Flee from a road gang being watched by one or more armed guards.

On the heavy – Safeblowing.

The N&O, Aug. 23, 1936

While Gilbreth took a light-hearted look at life behind bars in North Carolina, the reality was more brutal. In 1994, N&O writer Craig Whitlock reported on the history of convict cages.

Before there were state prisons in North Carolina, there were cages.

From the turn of the century until World War II, wardens all across the state sang the praises of the revolutionary “Convict Cage.” The boxy, metal cages on wheels held up to 20 unlucky inmates each, providing a secure and easy way to transport chain gangs and leave them locked up in the field for the night.

Prisoners, naturally, hated them. Packed head to foot, convicts shuddered against the elements in quarters resembling a portable chicken coop without straw.…

One state prison superintendent, Julian Mann, estimated in the early 1900s that the average convict could expect to survive for only five years on a chain gang.

Few doubt him today.

“It would be considered barbaric today, of course,” said Eddie Shore, superintendent of the Yadkin Correctional Center, about 30 miles due west of Winston-Salem. “But for that time, it was probably considered good housing.”

Indeed, prison superintendents couldn’t say enough good things about the cages in their heyday.

In terms of security, they beat tents or stockades hands down, not requiring the constant presence of shotgun-happy guards.

And locking the chain gangs in a cage for the night proved much easier and cheaper than trucking them back to the county jail. In the morning, guards would hitch up a team of mules to the cage and move the prisoners to the next work site.

“We simply could not get along without them,” declared W.H. Byrum, the Harnett County prison superintendent, in a 1915 testimonial written to the Manly Jail Works, a major cage manufacturer. “I can’t suggest any improvements in the general construction of the cage.”

Added J.E. Cole, superintendent in Sampson County: “Your portable cages are by far the safest, most convenient and most economical way to handle convicts that I have ever seen.”

Although various models evolved over the years, the basic design remained simple: several hard, metal bunks stacked two or three high, with a single commode and iron stove in the middle.

At night, a canvas flap would cover the metal grates on the sides, providing a modest measure of insulation and privacy. A pail of disinfectant every few weeks and annual coat of paint kept the cages “clean, sanitary and vermin-proof,” boasted a Manly Jail Works advertisement.…

During the first part of the century, the state didn’t have many alternatives for housing inmates.

Counties kept most prisoners in their own jails. Local governments would often lease them out to private companies as cheap labor to build roads.

The state picked up on that practice when it began building a highway system. The cages proved a thrifty alternative to constructing expensive prisons.

They were phased out beginning in 1933, when the General Assembly authorized money to build permanent road camps across North Carolina. Those camps became the foundation for today’s state prison system. The N&O Nov. 27, 1994

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

More jargon from 1936:

The walls – State Prison.

Hot plate – Electric chair.

Buzz wagon – ditto.

To hound – To trail with bloodhounds.

Going down – Being executed.

Hard rock – Tough guy.

Shoe eater – One who curries favor with officials.

Hack – Policeman.

Screw – Prison guard.

Croaker – Doctor.

On the scout – Wanted.

Going to the bamas – Going to run away.

In the hole – Solitary confinement.

In the cracker orchard – In solitary on crackers and water.

Getting the book – Life in prison.

Getting the works – Being sentenced to die.

Pete – Safe.

Pete mob – Gang of safeblowers.

Paper hanger – Forger.

A wire – Pickpocket.

A put up – Safe that has been watched and is known to contain money.

Grease – Explosives.

Hot car – Stolen car.

Lush – Intoxicating drink.

Lusher (or lushhound) – Drunkard.

The heist – Robbery with arms.

The prowl – Sneak thievery.

Gay cat – One who locates easy places to rob.

Shoving queer – Passing counterfeit money.

Going to bat – Going to trial.

Cheaters – Eyeglasses worn as disguise.

Bugged – Equipped with burglar alarm.

Pennyweighter – One who robs jewelry stores by substituting imitations for high-priced articles.

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