One truism about humor in the jailhouse workplace: it’s not so much the funny situations as it is the funny comments; imagine a room of stand-up gunslingers trying to outdraw their opponents–forgive the trite analogy, but it’s that kind of thing.
It’s boring, being in prison. Things don’t change. The routine is horrifyingly routine. One of the few things that can change is how the sameness is perceived. That’s where prisoner’s humor is important. The incarcerated seek to combat the Mundane through their funny observations of the day and of the people in it. It’s a way of marking one day from the next, and it’s a way of getting through one day to the next.
One changing Constant that prisoners can rely upon to make the day bearable is the mistakes that people make. And when you make one–boy, do you hear about it. Mistakes are entertainment; they also give prisoners something new to think and talk about. Because the prison’s regimen requires them to behave perfectly, they take delight in pointing out the human frailties of others, especially those of their keepers, the very ones imposing the high standards of prisoner conduct.
Last year, I brought in eight boxes of books from a book buy that took me three separate trips to finalize at a local store called the Shire Bookshop. I had $2,500 to spend, which goes a very long way at this wonderful store.
So, two of my clerks are receiving books and checking off titles from the packing list I generated on my laptop while working at the store. When they’re through, they report that 80 titles are missing. I check the titles against the packing list; sure enough, they ain’t lyin’. Now I know that I packed these books and put them aside, yet they’re not here. I only recall packing eight boxes of books, and eight boxes of books is what we’ve received. Now the clerks start ragging me:
“Someone managed to lose 80 books all by himself!”
“Would he lose his head if it wasn’t attached?”
“I may be a scumbag convict, but at least I can f**king COUNT…” And on and on and on and on and on and on and on.
I called the store. I tell my tale. They say “Hold, please.” They take a look. They find an additional four (4) boxes of books that I’d packed and set aside on some wooden pallets at the back of the store. In my defense, these boxes had been covered with a plastic tarpaulin and therefore were hidden from view.
I won’t live this down. Ever. Each time that I announce a future book buy, it’ll be:
“Do you remember how to get there?”
“After you box the books, remember you have to pay for them.”
“Maybe we should pin the prison address to his coat so he can find his way back?”
“Take me with you–I’ll make sure those books get here!” Helpful stuff like that.
In the free world, humor is seen as a delightful diversion; in jail, it’s a vital coping mechanism. By encouraging healthful, nondestructive humor, the Librarian can help the incarcerated in their unstructured socialization efforts. It’s certainly socially acceptable to share a laugh, particularly when the level of intimacy is high and the comments take on the form of good-natured teasing.
Some correctional employees object to allowing themselves to be the butt of inmate jokes; they believe it’s beneath their dignity as a member of staff to permit their inmate workers to make sport of them. Well, I don’t agree. Even if I did, it would matter not one jot, because I make lots of mistakes. Noticeable ones. Public ones. To pretend that I didn’t and then attempt to carry on a facade of false dignity and stature would be funnier and more entertaining than the brief comments made at my expense. I think, if you’re lucky, prison teaches you that most things aren’t as serious as they appear. Someone (probably a Greek Stoic) said, “Laugh at yourself: you’ll have a constant source of amusement.” That’s I’m talkin’ ’bout: humility — and mental health — through humor.
Studies the world over are discovering the physiological as well as emotional benefits to good, solid belly laughter. Take advantage of each chance you have of sharing humor with your inmate staff, the library users, your boss, and fellow employees. Why? It’s for your own good, as well as theirs.