You are what and how you speak. Words matter.

When people are sentenced to prison, the initial jolt is not just deprivation of liberty. It is the shock of having to learn a whole new set of words and meanings that each in their own way are fit for purpose in the carceral environment.

‘Screw’ means prison officer. ‘Dog’ refers to someone who dobs in a mate to the authorities. Lots of words and loads of new interpretations are part and parcel of prison acclimatisation.

Prison talk shapes prison life. It determines whose side we are on. It determines what our future trajectories will be.

Consider this. Indigenous adults only comprise 2 to 3 per cent of the total Australian population, Indigenous children under 18 in the order of 5 per cent. Yet the over-representation of Indigenous people in both adult and juvenile prisons frequently translates into a majority population inside. For example, over 50 per cent of all young people in youth detention centres around the country are Indigenous – the trauma and grief for this community is ongoing.

The language ‘inside’, however, has attraction for impressionable people on the ‘outside’. Hearing the previously incarcerated speak, especially to each other, can be mystifying and strangely exhilarating for those who personally do not know the code. Learning the lingo, by going to that place, is not fear-inspiring, particularly when it is filled with your familiars.

The language of the prison therefore has its attractions beyond the detractions of its four walls.

It also has its own peculiar ongoing repressive legacy.

I met ‘Peter’ when he was on day release from maximum security at Risdon. He was, somewhat ironically in the circumstances, studying criminology at the university.

In his last year of university, during the exam period, Peter was granted parole and shovelled out into the wider community. He quickly became known to others as, and reconfirmed for himself, ‘ex-con’. This label came to dominate his life, a process that he himself fostered to his advantage.

For instance, Peter continued his studies, undertaking an Honours degree and later commencing a PhD. He worked part-time as a tutor during this period. Imagine the response when mid-tutorial, Peter would announce to his class that he was an ex-con and then proceed to tell his criminology charges the ‘real story’ about life inside. Criminological study was never more ‘applied’ and ‘relevant’ than when Peter supplied the insights.

But the manner of the ex-con, at least in Peter’s case, is to puff up and speak lots. It is to pontificate and to ‘know everything’, to stretch the limits of credibility, and to lean on experiences outside the ken of the everyday person. Peter’s status outside the prison very much depended upon his former status as prisoner. It became his stock coin in trade. His self-image was moulded by it, his speech patterns punctuated by expressive and explicit reference to his periods of imprisonment.

Five years after release and Peter still relied upon secret prison knowledge, squirrelled-away slang words, and public huff and bluff to make his mark on the community around him. He was unable to escape his past as now the past was what constituted his most precious resource in the present – a unique, compelling and colourful identity. He was a ‘someone’ precisely because he was ‘one of a kind’ in the academic cloisters that he now inhabited.

Peter was locked in a linguistic cage of his own making; his self-worth intimately constructed on a platform of past transgression to which he was living memorial.

By one of those strange quirks of fate, Peter found a job in another city, because of his academic expertise. Those hiring him did not care about his recent past. They did not care about his former illegal exploits. They wanted to employ someone whose knowledge of a particular field excelled their own.

For Peter, this was a slow moment of revelation. Slow, because even as newly-formed acquaintances and employment situation diminished the social power of his ex-con persona, his speech patterns took literally years to change.

Today, Peter speaks like a free man. Exaggeration occasionally slips through, bluster surfaces once in a while. But as the prison talk receded, so too did the limited mentality to which it made reference. Now, the words he uses are suited to a different reality. Now, his speech is free of old affectations. Now, Peter is oriented toward the future – instead of being mired in the past.

Prison talk has consequences for those inside, for those outside, and for those coming outside. It is a divide and conquer language of survival and coping. Yet far too often it also signals the death of hope and shredding of horizons.

Some offenders ought to be in prison but many, indeed most, should not be there. There are other ways to define who we are and what we might become. There are other ways to punish, repair the harm and make things right.

Without prisons, there would be no prison talk. We need fewer prisons.

Rob White is Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania. Here, he writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.