Prison Laugh Riot

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release IF YOU DON’T LAUGH YOU’LL CRY: The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers. Author Claire Schmidt writes about the unexplored world of prison staff humor. In their high-stakes, high-stress environment, these workers let off steam by cracking jokes that are not always nice. In this post, Schmidt emphasizes the difference between movie portrayals of cruel  guards and real corrections workers and discusses why the evolving state of U.S. prisons is no laughing matter.

 

 

“There’s nothing funny about prison.”  That’s what my uncle told me when I started researching the humor of prison workers.
There's nothing funny about prison, said my uncle as I started writing about what was funny about prison. Click To Tweet
And yet, when prison workers get together, they surround themselves with laughter. Many of the people I interviewed for this book—my collaborators—are gifted verbal artists, making each other laugh. Practical jokes, gag gifts, smart remarks, memes, and mimicry evolve into stories that travel beyond the walls of the institution.

One collaborator told me, “I am constantly trying to make my coworkers laugh. I consider it imperative to do this every day in this profession. Humor cuts tension. Cutting tension in the correctional setting, rather than adding to it, elevates my self-worth.”
We love to hate the prison guards in films and television; their violence, racism, and inhumanity is legendary, from Cool Hand Luke to The Shawshank Redemption. But we almost never see the faces or hear the voices of actual, living prison workers. Prison work happens behind closed doors—there is no “take your daughter to work day.”

The men and women who work in Wisconsin’s correctional facilities work hard for low pay and eroding benefits. They don’t get much respect or appreciation. The job brings elevated risk of heart attack, suicide, substance abuse, and divorce. So why is humor so important to prison work?

The men and women I interviewed insisted that humor is an essential job skill. “It’s really true—if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,” one collaborator told me. Enduring stress, boredom, stigma, violence, and human suffering is part of prison work. As one collaborator observed, “We need to rely a lot on gallows humor to cope with the things that we see.”

When we joke, we are able to talk about such scary or taboo topics as sex, death, and race. The communicative power of humor is especially important in prison. Workers can express anger, sadness, or frustration with their jobs under the protection of “only” joking.

Prisons are all about people and all about communication. My collaborators made it clear that they use humor to build functional relationships with inmates as well as to communicate solidarity and affection to their coworkers. Wit and comic timing can deescalate a crisis and good storytelling turns that crisis into an educational story.
One collaborator told me, “If we like you, we’ll mess with you!” Humor helps to educate, test, and initiate rookies, just as gag gifts and roasts are an essential parts of corrections retirement parties. Laughter turns outsiders into insiders, but humor also defines the boundaries between groups like officers vs inmates or black vs white.

Humor isn't safe or nice. Professionalism is at war with the desire to push the limits. Click To Tweet
Humor isn’t safe or nice. Professionalism is at war with the desire to push the limits and to talk about uncomfortable things. Prison worker humor (just like doctor or teacher humor) can be tasteless and offensive. “We joke about a lot of gay stuff,” one collaborator told me.

Corrections officer Harriet Fox writes, “We sure laugh a lot at work. Watching inmates act disorderly and shocking can be sadly entertaining.” And since most Wisconsin prison workers are white, anxiety about unfamiliar cultures manifests in racial humor. Just because humor is offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Although violent crime has declined in the US, we lock up a huge number of our citizens (and in Wisconsin, a really disproportionate number of black, Hispanic, and Native people). It’s getting harder and harder to recruit and retain correctional officers in Wisconsin after the workers’ union was stripped of collective bargaining rights. If we want safer prisons, we can start by trying to understand what makes these workers laugh.

Audioclips from interviews conducted by Schmdit wherein prison guards tell stories of the humor involved on the job. 

“Don’t send me any of them down here!”

“What’chu know bout CeeLo Green?”

“Best part of the job.”

And a final word of advice: If you meet a correctional officer, avoid “don’t-drop-the-soap” jokes. They’ve heard them.
If you meet a correctional officer, avoid “don’t-drop-the-soap” jokes. They’ve heard them. Click To Tweet

Claire Schmidt is a folklorist and assistant professor of English at Missouri Valley College.

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