“Stop it, you’re killing me!” THE IMPORTANCE OF JAILHOUSE HUMOR

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.

4 thoughts on ““Stop it, you’re killing me!” THE IMPORTANCE OF JAILHOUSE HUMOR

  1. I used to be very hard on myself, wanting to always be perceived as prim and proper with work perfectly done, but I was always worried about appearing less than perfect. Over time, I’ve learned to “not sweat the small stuff” and have realized that my mistakes actually make me more human … I’ve also developed a better sense of humor.

    I’m curious about the books that you got … were they mostly paperbacks? fiction? non-fiction?

    • So you laugh more, you take things less seriously, and you’re a better person for it all. What more could you want out of life?

      Nobody’s ‘perfect’. I don’t know if you heard about it? Although they say that “Practice makes perfect” but I’m convinced that they say that for the alliteration (or is ‘assonance’ the word I want? It’s too late and I’m too tired). I’m glad you don’t pummel yourself anymore.

      This time, the books I bought were mostly self-help, sci-fi/fantasy (they were having a sale on Book Club editions), biography, and a strange mishmash of reference titles.

      Although we have a thriving book binding program, I buy as many hardcovers as possible. Paperbacks in any circulating library are a waste of time, but particularly so in a place like jail where they get manhandled by folks who, on the whole, have never been instructed on the proper care and treatment of books and of items not belonging to them. Some of the inmates act the same way…. ;o)

  2. It’s my understanding that books coming into prison have to come from approved vendors, and can’t be sent by family members, etc. because of the potential for contraband being smuggled in with them. In your experience, has this been a problem, particularly in an environment with primarily hardbound books?

    • The approved vendors list is being challenged constantly by both inmates and inmate advocates and, as a result, the approved vendors list is being changed frequently. The only problem that I can see remains trying to keep up with the revisions to the list.

      It’s nothing that concerns the library — although these days Librarians have their own approved vendors they must stick to. Fortunately, you’re part of this approval process in that you can suggest vendors to be placed on the list. You can even initiate the process whereby a vendor can apply to be placed on the approved list. The how the Shire Bookshop got included — I brought them the vendor application to fill out.

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