My question comes apropos a comment on an old question's of RegDwight's, "jail" vs. "prison". After many answers established that there was indeed a difference in usage between the two terms, JohnFx said,

I would argue that the difference isn't archaic. Let's just say I've known a few people who have been to both jail and prison, and the people in them DEFINITELY know the difference. (See 'pull the chain')

Alas, the comments didn't go past that, and I didn't find any other questions on EL&U addressing what "pull the chain" means, with regard to jails and prisons. What does it mean?

  • My impression is that it means to cause someone to react emotionally, usually angrily and with vituperation. – caxtontype Apr 15 '11 at 1:31

To Pull the chain (alternatively Catch the chain) in the jargon of inmates is when you get transferred from one place to another, usually on a prison bus (sometimes referred to as a "chain", or "Bluebird express" (in Texas). The context I've heard it used most is when someone gets transferred from a temporary holding place (jail) to where they will do their real time (prison). I get the feeling it has a negative connotation of being forced to go somewhere against one's will and I don't think they use it when they get on the prison bus when they are being transferred for release.

I am not certain of the origin, but from what I've heard and read, it seems to come from the notion of a chain gang. Specifically when a guard wanted to move a bunch of inmates on a chain gang he would pull the chain they were attached to. Another possible (and less nostalgic) explanation is related to the fact that inmates are chained together when they are being transported on the bus.

The metaphor may be slightly different when you are being transferred from jail to prison. At least from the person I heard it from who was going through that process. It seemed more to me like he was likening the transfer to being flushed down a toilet, specifically referring to the old fashioned ones with a raised tank and flush chain. However, it is possible he just didn't know about the other origin and was assuming incorrectly.

Here are a couple of sources online for prison slang:
Prisoner's Dictionary (this is the best one)
The Correctional Officers Guide to Prison Slang
Texas Prison Slang Forum Posting

Thanks to my true-crime obsessed wife, I also can recommend the following book which is more exhaustive and frankly fascinating:
Prison-Ese: A Survivor's Guide to Speaking Prison Slang

You can probably get direct answers from people over at PrisonTalk.com if you have specific questions. It is a support forum for incarcerated people, their families and friends to help them cope with the experience.

Another of my favorites is a euphemism for getting charged with another crime when already in prison/jail. They call that catching a case. I like it because it so vividly demonstrates the mindset of persecution and lack of responsibility that is prevalent among criminals. That is, they get charged with a crime the same way people catch a disease, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not because of anything they may have done.

This is all second hand knowledge. I've never been to prison or jail personally. I just know a couple of people who have, or have family members currently in prison.

Also, prison slang seems to have regional dialects to some degree. So there might be slightly different terms or connotations in a Texas prison and an Illinois prison.

  • +1: I have no idea if this is the right usage or not, and so this could all be made up. But it has the air of plausibility and makes a good story. – Mitch Apr 16 '11 at 15:32

When the inmates here refer to 'pull chain' it means they will transfer to the state prison system. They've been to court and have been sentenced. It doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing because most are ready to start their time and get it finished.


The answer has nothing to do with prison or jail To pull one's chain refers to a surveyors measurement. If you "pull the chain" then present a reading which is incorrect- you would be misleading someone. Which is why when you get told a story you don't believe, you might ask "are you pulling my chain?" In surveyor terms 1 Chain= 100 Links= 4 Rods= 22 yards= 66 feet For you horse racing fans, 10 chains = 1 furlong = 1/8 mile. For you with nothing better to do- 1 Arpent = 2.9127 Chains and I ain't pulling your chain! The chain was an important part of US history- the Mason Dixon line was measured using chains- Here is a link to a great article. http://www.udel.edu/johnmack/mason_dixon/ Mt Everest and was also measured out in chains.

  • I think the question implied that the expression had one meaning outside the prison system (which you have explained) and one inside it (which is different). Very good answer, just not for this question :-( – Andrew Leach Sep 16 '13 at 14:40

If someone is "pulling your chain" or "yanking your chain", the image is of a dog or other animal on a chain and the owner maliciously and deliberately enraging the animal by jerking the chain. "Jerk you around" has the same origin.

Utterly separate, and now thoroughly obsolete, many years ago, toilet cisterns (the "tanks") were mounted high up on the ceiling and so to flush them, instead of pressing a button or twisting a lever, you'd pull a chain. "Pulling the chain" became an expression meaning getting rid of something as if by flushing down the toilet. (To get a sense of how old this expression is: in The Godfather, set in 1946, Clemenza says that a restaurant has "those old-fashioned toilets" with the high-mounted cisterns and he will hide the gun behind one of them.)

  • 1
    My grandmother & aunt both had pull-chain toilets as late as the 1990s. They were quite common in Eastern Europe through the 1980s. – Marthaª Apr 15 '11 at 3:38
  • @Martha -- yeah, but I think that say more about Eastern Europe than it does about pull-chain toilets. – Malvolio Apr 15 '11 at 3:48
  • While this is correct for "pulling your chain" in the context of the question (prison jargon) it is incorrect. – JohnFx Apr 16 '11 at 15:17
  • This is not the context the OP was writing about. – James Jenneman Jun 17 '13 at 4:59
  • @Malvolio They still exist in the UK as well. – Chris H Sep 16 '13 at 14:56

The phrase "pull chain" refers to convicts that were chained together. When prisoners were required to sit while chained while waiting i.e. to go to work or be transferred from place to place, the first convict was told to stand up, the second convict would stand up when he felt the pull on the chain, then the third, fourth, and so on would follow down the line.

  • That is a good point, but a good answer will substantiate the claim. Do you have a source you can point to that confirms or suggests this origin? – nxx Mar 5 '14 at 19:54

As Malvolio says, pulling someone's chain means riling them up or jerking them around.

I believe the author is saying that you can rile up ex-convicts by alleging that there is no difference between prison and jail.

  • Nope. That phrase has a very specific meaning to the incarcerated distinct from the similar phrase. – JohnFx Apr 16 '11 at 15:18

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