“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?

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

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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 🙂

    • 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!

  4. 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.

    • 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.”

  5. 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.

    • 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 . . .

    • Golden! My linguistics degree is a mere Bachelor’s, but I know good research methods when I see them. … Et voilà!

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. I never heard of ‘kite’ until I read this blog post. Neither has my LVN. We’re in Southeast Texas so we’re thinking this is a Northern thing.

    • “Kite” is used as an inmate communication here in Northwest Louiusuana—just a few miles from the Texas line.

  9. At my institution we use the word kite for as a request form ( probation and parole kites ) or P&P kites and also case worker kites. Also for passing information as ” someone flew me a kite and told me where there was a shank.

  10. This may come from a variation on the common English expression, “to fly a kite”, meaning “to make a suggestion in order to guage the response” before committing to a course of action. The OED suggests that it comes from the practice of putting up a kite to see which way the wind is blowing at altitude. I remember that, in the Royal Navy, “to fly a kite” also meant, by extension, “to make a request that you had little expectation of having accepted”. If medical requests in your prison service used to be regularly turned down, then they might also have been associated with “kite-flying”?
    By the way, I notice a citation in the OED entry has this:

    1831 Visct. Palmerston in H. L. Bulwer Life Palmerston (1871) II. 65 Charles John [King of Sweden] flew a kite at us for the Garter the other day, but without success.

    This is the British foreign secretary refering to just such a request or suggestion by the King of Sweden that he might be awarded a high British honour (Knight of the Garter). You could think of your inmates as “flying a kite at you” when they make a request!

  11. I’ve been told that the word kite goes back to the old High-walled prison days, where the only communication with the outside world or family was to literally fly a kite over the wall with a note attached. Not sure how accurate the information is but, it seems probable.

  12. Thank you for the insight. I have a son incarecerated. I was told he needed to ask the deputy for a kite although she spelled it kiyte. I was confused. This forum sheds light on what I really needed to know. Thanks again.

    • It is known over the world as a naval distress signal. Emergency kites are sold on the internet. I guess in the old days they used them as distress signals at forts and such. It is a call for help. Kind of a desperate one, I would imagine, hence the term “go fly a kite” as in good luck with that. lol

        • The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1859 for the first use of this term in prison, meaning an illicit communication. Somewhere else, I read that it referred to cigarette papers associated with Kite (brand) tobacco. This is credible, as Kite cigarette rolling tobacco remains on the market. Sorry I didn’t write down the source for that.

  13. In my current facility our Medical Requests are NEMR or Non Emergent Medical Request Forms. I had always known them as kites in previous facilities where I had worked.

  14. Good topic. We will gradually sift comments for additions to the file /akiteis.html
    where collections of definitions for “kite” is center of attention.

    Some speculation: Prisoners in early centuries were chosen to be lifted up in a kite to make observations of the enemy. They did not want to risk the lives of regular soldiers. The select prisoners took a big risk being kited; their life depended on being a part of successful kite.

  15. “Kite” originated from inmates yelling through the bars at the “guard!” In an attempt to get something. The correctional officer would reply “…go fly a kite”. Inmate’s eventually figured out that they had a better chance at getting a response when they’d write their request down.

  16. It came from a union prison named camp Douglas during the civil war. Confederate prisoners would fly kits with messages on them. This is also where dead line came from. It was a line for hanging and drying laundry from one side. But if you crossed it you were shot.

  17. My mother whose name was Mary Kite worked at a
    Jail in Lincoln Nebraska as a guard. In 1986 she received a
    $50.00 check for her idea of calling the request forms to see a case manager a lawyer or Doctor
    A kite request. The inmates would always request to see my mom
    As she went from Lt to a case manager. That’s how I understand it went
    In Lincoln Nebraska.

  18. I am familiar with the term but in the Midwest both federal and state I hear HSR or MSR. Health Service Request or Medical Service Request the two are used interchangeably. It may be a regional issue as inmates will always ask for HSR or MSR but occasionally I will hear a request for a kite to be sent.

  19. Pingback: - Login Productions

  20. Hi –
    So happy to have found this site!
    Just starting working Correctional medical records and drowning in Kites. Non stop work and 12 hours has never gone by so quickly. Love the job and all the of staff are so amazing.

  21. I think if a term is understood by the parties being served and not patently offensive, then it is an okay term. Obtaining understanding in communication is paramount particularly in the population we serve where many patients haven’t had long educational histories so if “kite” is a term our population perfectly understands, then the goal is achieved. the history of the term is interesting. It is a term I’ve heard my entire correctional medicine career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *