Understanding Why Prison Guards Officers in the UK are Referred to as ‘Screws’

Prison Info

In the UK prison system, the familiar term for a prison officer is “screw”. Ever wondered why? We’ll delve into the intricacies and historical context of this unique nickname and its continued usage in the 21st century.

The origins of labeling prison guards as ‘screws’ is steeped in history. The term was first noted in the 19th century and has travelled down through generations of criminal slang.

  1. The Turning the Screw Theory: One theory posits that the term derived from a punishing practice prevalent in the Victorian era. The ‘Crank’ machine, an imprisonment instrument, required inmates to turn a screw mechanism, often leading to physical exhaustion and pain. The officers overseeing this punishment were thus referred to as ‘screws’.
  2. The Psychological Turn: Another theory suggests the term relates to the mental ‘screwing’ or pressure that inmates feel due to the disciplinary actions and constant surveillance by prison officers. The term encapsulates the psychological power dynamics at play within the prison walls.

In contemporary usage, the term ‘screw’ is often used negatively due to its historical baggage. However, it’s essential to remember that prison guards play a crucial role within the justice system. They bear a great deal of responsibility which involves managing prisoners, enforcing rules, and maintaining safety and security within the prison environment.

Prison officers, despite their historical monicker, undergo rigorous training to ensure they carry out their duties effectively. They are taught numerous skills like negotiation and crisis management to deal with the variety of challenges they may face on the job.

It’s also crucial to recall that the relationship between prison officers and inmates can have a significant impact on prisoner rehabilitation. While ‘screws’ are often portrayed as oppressive figures, many officers actively engage in the support and rehabilitation of inmates. They foster an environment of learning and growth which aids in preparing inmates for eventual reintegration into society.


While the term ‘screw’ might bear an unsavory origin, the role of a prison officer is critical in the UK’s criminal justice system. It involves far more than enforcing rules and discipline; it encompasses guidance, support, and fostering rehabilitation.

Whether the term ‘screw’ will continue to be used and evolve in meaning is uncertain. What’s certain, however, is that the role of the prison officer will continue to play a significant part in shaping a more effective, rehabilitative, and humane prison system in the UK.

The understanding of terminologies, their origin, their impact, and their evolution, helps in establishing a deeper insight into the working of UK’s prison system. The next time you hear the term ‘screw’, you’ll know the depth and history behind the word!

From the physically taxing ‘turning of the crank’ to the more modern connotation of psychological strain, the term ‘screw’ is more than just a slang. It represents a small part of the compelling history and complexities of the UK prison system. We hope this guide has provided you with a valuable peek inside the fascinating world behind the prison walls.

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