By Jesse C. Gonzales
The tag or label pinto when referring to a current prison inmate has been handed down through the decades. Although of European roots, it has evolved in meaning to identify beyond jail or prison enclosures, the members of American society who have served time in prison. At one time, the term was used exclusively in the Southwest among the Hispanic/Chicano population to slur or profane the ex-offender upon his release into the community.
The term became so offensive and hateful that “pintos” often sought each other out as a method of support, and formed a community within their communities. Over time, a subculture developed and, as a result, the use of “pinto jargon” became widespread among pop culture, street gangs and the general population.
In paraphrasing the work of Inez Cardoza-Freeman (The Lingo of the Pintos), most of the slang spoken by the pintos deals directly with prison life and thereby reflects the social structure of the prison and the prisoners incarcerated there. This lingo, like much underworld slang and argot, is filled with metaphor, understatement (or litotes), irony, cynicism and humor; for example, lo salvaron (they saved him) to describe a former prisoner returned to the penitentiary for either breaking his parole or committing another crime, esposas (wives) for handcuffs and playa (beach) for the prison shower.
The lingo has a tendency to play down serious situations or concerns through humorous and euphemistic disparagement. This tendency, of course, is part of what constitutes the culture of the prison, a part that can be discovered only by examining the lexicon of the pintos.
A conflux of Spanish/Mexican culture and Anglo culture in the prison yields the following Hispanicized English terms: bonque (bunk), rapo (rap), ganga (gang), rata (rat, informer), clica (clique), convicto (convict), daime (dime, 10-year sentence), tanque (“tank,” solitary confinement), stache (stash), movida (move), rutina (routine), yarda (yard), nicle (nickle, 5-year sentence), craquiada (crack), chante (shanty, house), dilear (dealer), rapiada (rape), jaqueta (jacket), laundre (laundry), norisa (nurse), pimpiando (pimping) and trampa (tramp).
One of the primary functions of language is naming or labeling. Everything must be identified if it is to have meaning. Through labeling, what is experienced becomes reality. By naming, we order what is important in our world.
As in all speech communities, prisoners have labels by which they categorize themselves. This process of naming or classifying helps them order and organize their precarious existential situation, bringing into it some degree of predictability, stability and safety. Only those groups considered important are identified and labeled by the men.
As Nathan Kantrowitz points out, “The lack of a name indicates that a phenomenon is unimportant or nonexistent.” Each label by which a prisoner identifies himself denotes a particular kind of experience; each possesses distinct qualities and attributes separate from the others. In addition, each label carries with it a particular status in the hierarchy of the prisoner’s world.
Because survival is a top priority in the prisoner’s world, those in his culture whom he identifies as playing an important role in his survival hold high status, those who threaten or complicate his survival hold low status and those who neither assure nor threaten or complicate his survival hold neutral status.
Qualities or characteristics that high-status types possess are courage, high intelligence, positive leadership ability, charismatic power, long prison experience, political skill, trustworthiness, loyalty, ability to stand up to as well as communicate with prison authorities, capacity and willingness to use physical or brute power, and the ability to intimidate the prison population through ruthless recourse to assassination, when necessary, to keep the peace. With the exception of courage, which all high-status types possess, these characteristics are not equally distributed; indeed, the talent of one type may not be found at all in another.
Together, these characteristics represent the talents necessary in the culture to assure the prisoner’s survival. Cardoza-Freeman notes that examples of high-status prisoners include abogados (jailhouse lawyers), buena gente (good people), conetas (prison drug lords), meros chingones (prisoner leaders), pintos veteranos (experienced prisoners) or pintos viejos (seasoned prisoners), and vatos pesados (heavy dudes).
A New Beginning
It has long been generally accepted that the legal system in this society is retributive, accusatory, condemning and excessively punitive. The penal system is broken, not economically efficient and, by the latest federal findings, brutal and inhumane. In 2010, the operational cost for the California Department of Corrections was $11.5 million per day.
During a recent federal investigation, medical treatment for inmates was found to be below standards and overcrowding was far over and above capacity to the point that a federal mandate to comply was ordered. To date, that order has not been satisfied and imposed levies for noncompliance are costing the state additional millions.
The fact of the matter is that society has turned a blind eye on a situation that was created long ago by the same justice system it has empowered. In essence, by definition of law, the justice system has itself become unjust. This assertion is best amplified in Nietzsche’s caution: “Those who fight the monster need to take care that it does not turn them into monsters.”
The current economy continues to force drastic cuts in social programs that are meant to help the poor and disadvantaged. Under the guise of realignment, the counties are left to pay for the continued cost not covered by already limited resources. Least important and low in priority to the state are any programs dealing with ex-offenders.
Sadly, the communities have adopted the retributive and condemning mentality of the state when dealing with ex-offenders and ex-offender issues. Long after the individual has paid his/her debt to society the stigma of having breached the public trust continues to be a hurdle in everyday life not only to the individual “pinto” but to his/her family as well. Thus, the label of “pinto” forces these individuals to identify with each other and accept the fact that it is easier to recognize a “certain common relationship” among themselves and their families than to try and change popular community sentiment.
As in biblical times, when “lepers” were considered unclean and unwanted, so too have the “pintos” become the modern-day equivalent of this society’s lepers. Pintos are a product of this society, and society cannot wish them into nonexistence.
Therefore, the only humane and compassionate answer lies within the parameters and constructs of restorative justice. It is also the right thing to do. Chief Justice Earl Warren stated in Miranda v. Arizona: “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of the criminal law…All of these policies point to one overriding thought: the constitutional foundation underlying the privilege is the respect a government—state or federal—must accord the dignity and integrity of its citizens.” Truly, this was never meant to be part of the American way of life.
Release from a controlled prison setting can and usually is traumatic to both male and female offenders. Bouts with anxiety, panic attacks, fear and rage are all common to the newly released individual. In the most severe cases, uncontrolled shaking, night sweats, hot flashes and self-mutilation have also been noted.
Treatment to displace the effect of years of institutionalization is slow, emotionally painful and marginally successful. At present, research in this area is in its infancy.
Central Valley Pinto Restoration and Reconnection implements restorative justice principles based on restoring the individual to family, community and themselves. Successful reconnection through various circles of support, healing and accountability ensure a positive transformation in processing the changes associated with a new beginning.
Continued growth in a positive direction is possible and may be accelerated through education and or vocational training. Restorative justice encourages active participation from family, friends and concerned community members. Under restorative justice textbook applications that have been effectively proven, the potential value of each individual becomes a reality in which the entire community can be proud to take part and say with sincerity and belief—welcome home.
(Author’s note: Central Valley Pinto Restoration and Reconnection does not depend on government awards, grants or subsidies to operate. It operates entirely on gifts, donations, generosity and the prayers of the communities it serves. Because of the proximity to public transportation, Fresno Rescue Mission, Poverello House and other similar services, we are currently seeking office space and usable office equipment, preferably in the Chinatown district of downtown Fresno. Thank you and peace be with you.)
Jesse C. Gonzales is a project creator, a Christian counselor, a certified VORP (Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program) and COSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) mediator, and a restorative justice community advocate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.