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How prisoner warders came to be called 'Screws'

Posted by James Briggs on December 28, 2001 at

Something I've just discovered, and which doesn't seem to be in my reference books. The following about a 'screw' came up on a repeat BBC TV programme in the series 'What the Victorians did for us', in an episode about police and prisons, which even showed the cranking machine described below.

Screwed: To be screwed. Although it is a slang /colloquial expression for sexual intercourse, also means to be cheated, put in a disadvantageous position. This latter meaning seems to be related to the use of 'screw' as a slang name for a prison guard or warder. Until the mid 1800s, prisons, at least in England, were places of punishment only, with no concept of rehabilitation for the prisoners. One of the forms of punishment was to crank a handle attached to a large wooden box. The cranking did nothing, other than turn a counter. The prisoner had to do 10,000 turns in 8 hours, equivalent to one every 3 seconds or so. As an extra punishment a warder could tighten a screw to make turning more difficult. Warders came to be known as 'screws'. By inference, the prisoner was 'screwed' and, although 'screw' remained within the prison environment, eventually 'to be screwed' became widespread.

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