This month, CISL is celebrating one of the coolest tourist attractions in San Francisco: Alcatraz!

In honor of this historic locale, we have a list of some common English expressions that are associated with crime and jail. How many of these do you know?

English “jail” expressions

“Ball and chain”

Originally the name for the heavy ball that was chained around the ankles so that prisoners could not run away, this term is now (jokingly) used to describe your romantic partner. Yikes!

The ferry ride to Alcatraz is half the fun of this excursion!

“Bail some out” (of jail/trouble)

When someone is arrested in the United States, they go directly to jail . . . although the court date will probably not be for several weeks. Shortly after being arrested, the arrested attends a hearing in which the judge “sets bail,” which means that the judge determines the price the arrested must pay in order to leave jail between the arrest and the court hearing. To literally “bail someone out” means that you pay the price that the judge sets so that your friend or family member can go free. Of course, few people experience this process, so in reality, most English speakers use the term figuratively: to help someone out of a difficult situation.

Alcatraz and San Francisco, 1870

“In the slammer/bighouse” or “behind bars”

All three of these terms are slang for jail.


“To get away with murder”

The phrasal verb “get away with” something means that you do something bad and experience no consequences. To get away with murder is to do something and not “pay” for your “crime.” It is used in a very exaggerated sense: for example, “I only work five hours each day but my boss pays me for eight. I feel like I’m getting away with murder!”

An eerie, beautifully foggy day in SF.

Highway robbery

This term is used when a company sets a ridiculously high price for a product. “Four dollars for a loaf of bread? That’s highway robbery!”

Alcatraz, 1895

Cat burglar

A “cat burglar” is a thief who breaks into houses, usually by climbing through a window.


Have you been to Alcatraz? If not, book a trip soon: it’s an incredible experience! Stay tuned for our post on how to book and prepare for an excursion to Alcatraz.

All photos from Alcatraz on Facebook.