Why Are Prison Officers Called Screws?

Prison warders, wardens, officers and guards are nicknamed screws, usually by the prisoners.

The slang word screw originated in the Victorian era when a prison warder or officer would give a prisoner a pointless task as a punishment.

Crank Machines

One of these punishments was a crank machine used as hard labour. This crank machine would involve the inmate having to turn a handle on a drum which would be filled with sand or water to make it heavier.

The prison guard could tighten a screw in the drum to make turning the handle harder. Prisoners would have to turn the handle a number of times as their punishment. Thus began the slang word screw to mean a prison officer.

There is an example of a crank machine at Stonehaven Tolbooth Museum.

More phrase origins.

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