One day's worth of inmate kites, Ada County Jail, Boise, Idaho

“Kite?” Where did that come from?

One day’s worth of inmate kites, Ada County Jail

I am wondering today where the term “kite” came from.  Everybody who works in jails or prisons is familiar with “kite,” which in jails and prisons refers to a written request for something.

Inmates can “kite” for anything, but those of us in the medical departments deal with medical kites,  as in:  Inmate:  ”I need to see the doctor.  I’m sick.”  Deputy: “Well, fill out a kite then.”  Or “I’m sending your kite back to you because you forgot to sign and date it.”  ”Kite” can be a noun (“Fill out this kite.”) or a verb (“I kited medical but I haven’t seen the doctor yet.”)

This term seems to be universal.  Correctional personnel all over the country are familiar with it, whether jails or prisons, state or federal, adult or juvenile.  I have yet to meet someone in the correctional field who does not know what a “kite” is.  It also is commonly used.  Not a day goes by that we don’t hear this term bandied about.

Yet I cannot find this definition of “kite” listed in any dictionary.  I checked several.  Even the dictionaries devoted to slang, like The Online Slang Dictionary or the Slang Dictionary don’t list the term “kite.”  How can a slang term be so common in jails and prisons yet be unknown to linguists?

So where did the term “kite” come from?  I have heard two explanations.  Some inmates believe that the term “kite” implies that we don’t care about them, as in: Inmate: “I’m sick.  I need to see the doctor.” Deputy: “Oh, go fly a kite.”  Although many inmates believe this, I myself don’t think this is where the term comes from.

“Kite” probably came instead from the prison practice of communicating with another inmate in the next cell or even many cells away.  The inmate folds up a note and ties it to a long piece of string.  He then swings the note attached to the string underneath his cell door and into the cell of his friend.  Since the folded up note attached to a piece of string resembled a kite, it was called a “kite,” and the term “kite” then became a universal prison term for any written communication, including requests for medical care.

This explanation of the term makes sense to me, so I tend to believe it.  But is it true?

Can anyone out there shed some light on this subject?  Where did the term “kite” originate?

13 thoughts on ““Kite?” Where did that come from?

  1. Michael Brewer RN

    Before begging work at the Ada County Jail I spent a number of years working at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. At their facility the inmates referred to these type’s of requests as “kites.” In a sense it probably is staff that also perpetuates the lingo as well.

    Reply
  2. Michael Brewer RN, Inmate Healthcare Supervisor, Ada County Sheriff Office

    BTW I estimate it took me approx. 6 hours alone just to triage, schedule, and follow up on all those requests that day!

    Reply
  3. sherri bible

    2. kite – get credit or money by using a bad check; “The businessman kited millions of dollars”
    obtain – come into possession of; “How did you obtain the visa?”
    I read somewhere that kites have been used as distress signals for forts, ships, etc.
    I guess then it makes sense. A corrections kite is used to obtain relief from some kind :)
    http://www.landfallnavigation.com/-skite.html

    Reply
    1. Jeffrey Keller Post author

      Thanks! This is one online slang dictionary that I did not check. It says Kite: “Correspondence received while incarcerated” and then gives an example of an inmate receiving a letter. That is close, but not quite, the same thing as sending in a request for medical care. Thanks for looking that up!

      Reply
  4. Lt. Clay Griffith

    I’ve heard some talk about the word kite being used interchangeably with a derogatory slang term for a Jewish person (kike). Somewhere I read about Nazi’s using human skin as a kite- the flying type. For that reason I prefer staff to use the word “request”. Maybe skinheads just can’t get outsmart spellcheck, but as Michael said, staff probably perpetuates the lingo by either supporting it, or choosing to not use slang themselves.

    Reply
    1. Jeffrey Keller Post author

      Thanks! I agree with you that medical professionals should use proper medical terminology; in this case “Medical Request” instead of “Medical Kite.” At the Ada Co. Jail, we use the acronym IRF that stands for “Internal Request Form.”

      Reply
  5. Bob Greifinger

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as a surreptitious communication between prisoners, first used in 1864. In those days, prisoners in ‘penitentiaries’ were supposed to be penitent (not allowed to speak). They passed messages written on small pieces of paper to each other. The paper available to them was Kite (brand) cigarette rolling papers. Kite tobacco and papers continue to be available on the internet. The information on Kite papers is not in the OED. Not sure where I learned that piece.
    I agree that there are better terms to use for a request for care.

    Reply
    1. Jeffrey Keller Post author

      Fantastic, Bob! I get excited about this sort of linguistic sleuthing; I don’t know why. This is now the single best explanation I have heard for the term Kite. BTW, I punched “kite rolling tobacco” into my search engine and sure enough, I can purchase Kite Brand rolling papers–if I want to write authentic old “kites” to my colleagues. Hmm, not a bad idea . . .

      Reply
  6. Mindyleigh

    Hmm. In our facility, I have never heard that term!
    Our medical requests (and all requests) are called “cop-outs.”
    I have no idea why.
    I don’t even really like it…it kind of sounds like a derogatory term in re: to requesting medical care.
    But that’s what they are called.
    On the paper, it says, “Request for Medical Care.”
    It would be tough to break the habit, since everybody knows what a cop-out is. I’m sure if I said, “Put in a request for medical care,” I would get many raised eyebrows and inmates wondering what in the heck I’m talking about!

    Reply
  7. Language interpreter

    I do both legal and medical interpreting in my community for a number of years. The first time I came across this term “kite” was during a phone interpreting session last week. It was in a conversation between a detained person and a legal representative. It puzzled me about how the term gained its entry into the prison community. Glad to gain some insights from the posts here. Thank you all.

    Reply

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