JUST GOOD, DUMB FUN: Or “The way to a sociopath’s heart is through his stomach”

When it comes to jailhouse humor, you either get it, or you don’t.

I get it. The fact that I get it makes me a warped individual. But please consider the truth of this next statement of self-evaluation — I was warped before I ever set foot in any prison. I truly believe that there’s a certain personality type that is drawn to corrections. It’s folks like me. I yam what I yam an’ that’s all that I yam.

Today, two amusing things were said that were too funny to forget, so — as is my regular habit — I took time to write them down.

The first happened at the circulation counter in the lending library. We’ve been doing our annual inventory here all this past week, and one of my circulation clerks was assigned to the computer to check circulation records when a shelf list card is found but not the corresponding book.

My cataloger — one of the Library’s more enthusiastic ball-busters — comes over to me holding a Complete Idiot’s Guide text in his hand. Gesturing to it, he says: “Maybe you can ask them to write one on prison libraries so you can find out what you’re supposed to be doin’.'” Then he quickly backs away, tittering like a school-girl.

I appealed to my inmate clerk manning the circulation computer. When I think of this man, the phrase ‘tiny mountain’ comes quickest to mind. At 6’1″ and nearly 300 power-lifting pounds, he sports a ‘Mr. Clean’ bald head that looks like it’s been staved directly into the center of his massive torso because he has no neck. This clerk also suffers from PSTD as a result of extensive combat experience. He has been trained to kill, knows many ways to kill, has seen many people killed, and has killed many times. And we in the library all know this.

I say: “Do you like me?”

In response, the clerk purses his lips to me suggestively, and wiggles his eyebrows in a most inappropriate manner (well, he’s been in a long time).

I say “Good.” Gesturing toward Mr. Ball-Buster, I say “You think he needs to be slapped?”

The circulation looks at his fellow clerk, then at me, returns his attention to his computer monitor and, as he resumes typing, says: “A pound of linguiça and I’ll do him any way you want.”

If the response you just finished reading struck you half as funny as it did me, then right now you are piddling in your pantaloons. Because I swear on a stack of flapjacks that I laughed for a full 30 seconds. The reason? You’re not supposed to encourage violence in the prison. Prisoners aren’t supposed to solicit goods for services rendered. And — usually — prisoners aren’t as up-front about their feelings toward each other. All these taboos taken together makes the clerk’s response not just funny but hilarious.


A little while later, I’m standing in our book-binding work area. There are four inmate clerks with me, including the book binder. One of my clerks — a heart disease patient for decades and who’s suffered several heart attacks in the last three years — is telling me about his recent chest pain, which compelled the prison to send him to an outside hospital. He says:

“They tested me, they found nothing wrong, and said ‘Don’t worry about it.'”

Another clerk (a friend of his for the past 40 years) says with concern in his voice, “Well, then, you must have angina.”

The heart patient replies “No. I’ve never had angina.”

At this, another clerk — in his Puerto Ricaῆo accent — quietly says to the book binder, with a wink: “He says he never had vagina?”


Jailhouse humor. You either get it, or you don’t.

5 thoughts on “JUST GOOD, DUMB FUN: Or “The way to a sociopath’s heart is through his stomach”

  1. Well, I found the second one very funny. Sex and wordplay — what’s not to like? I can also see a droll response along the lines of “Oh, I’ve had Angina. Trust me, you’re not missing anything.”

    But the first one, it just isn’t tickling my funny-bone. Are you sure there wasn’t some je ne sais quoi in the delivery that might not be translating here?

    Maybe it’s because I spent my formative years working in a pizza parlor — I find linguica completely disgusting. Only fishing anchovies out of the anchovy bucket was a grosser task than handling linguica. Ick.

    Swearing on a stack of flapjacks, though, whoa. I’d take that more seriously than swearing on a Bible. I love flapjacks as much as Chilly Willy does:

    “More butter?”
    “More butter!”
    “More syrup?”
    “More syrup!”
    “Very nice!”

    • Thank you, Mademoiselle, for your sticky/creamy comments. I can never see hotcakes the same way again.

      Jenniffer loves flapjacks


      “Are you sure there wasn’t some Je ne sais quoi in the delivery that might not be translating here?”

      In an effort to further your enlightenment, I combed through the above blog entry and was astonished to discover that the answer to your question can be found in not one (1) but two (2) places: the opening and closing paragraphs. But for your convenience — and in a desperate hope for greater understanding between peoples of all nationalities, sexual orientations, and academic abilities — I repeat it here:

      “Jailhouse humor. You either get it, or you don’t.”

      Jailhouse Joker

  2. Hah, these both gave me a bit of a chuckle–guess that says something about where my brain is at. We have tea here at the library every day at 3 that is open to both staff and visiting researchers. On days when I’m feeling brave enough to sit with the readers, I have to admit that the humor often goes over my head a little bit. Suddenly three people around me are laughing boisterously about some other scholar’s preposterous claim and I have no clue why it’s ridiculous.

    Some days… all I want to do after a day of work at an academic library (and usually a lunch hour full of grad. school work) is laugh at American Idol contestants (oh schadenfreude!) and have snarky arguments about the NFL with strangers on internet message boards.

  3. I can’t for the life of me imagine any situation in which I would ask an offender, “Do you like me?” or “You think he needs to be slapped?” The idea of asking one after the other boggles me.

    You emphasize choosing material for the collection that supports pro-socialization and that does not support criminal/anti-socialist thinking. You advised April 2012 Censorship and Prison Libraries workshop students that a correctional librarian is a correctional employee first and a librarian second; that they should, “Use the librarianship as a correctional tool to help correct (socialize/ rehabilitate) the criminal thinking of the prisoners who come to you for help.” (Mongelli 4/7/12)

    The offenders watch every move we make. Is our behavior as important as the material? Do we have a responsibility to model behavior that is appropriate to the workplace…well, for anyplace really?

    • At first I was tempted to say “Read it again; we’re joking with each other.” But I see from your shock that an explanation is required.

      In the prison, as anywhere else in life, I don’t believe in walking on eggshells. MAYBE if i were working with juveniles, I’d feel a different responsibility regarding behavior modeling. But I work with adults.

      I believe in controlling my anger. I believe in common courtesy. I believe in explanation when a “No” has to be given. I believe in attempting to love the unlovable. But I also believe in being myself and not someone else for (8) hours each work day. I actually tried that, fresh out of library school. Stephen Mallinger was my mentor, and he wore a suit and tie, so I wore a suit and tie, and tried out that persona. It didn’t work for me.

      In the above anecdote, I guess a couple of different things are happening simultaneously:

      1…..Clerks know that I accept the expression of vulgar humor in their workplace
      2…..Clerks appreciate the informal atmosphere
      3…..They’ve watched ‘every move I make’ for 20 years and know my character
      3…..I know they’re joking
      4…..They know I’m joking
      5…..The Library was closed
      5…..We’re men

      Taken together, a social dynamic is created that allows for these comments.

      I also know from talking with them that these inmates are adults who have held jobs in the free world and therefore already understand appropriate workplace behavior. That’s what makes the comments amusing, or at least understandable and acceptable to those in attendance.

      I don’t recommend the expression of vulgarity when you’re brand-new, and I don’t advocate vulgarity if vulgarity’s not your thing. In other words, it would be ridiculous to act vulgar to ‘fit in,’ or because certain of the cons are vulgar themselves.

      I also have seen that sex has much to do with this dynamic. I wouldn’t recommend vulgarity for female employees, as it sends the wrong message to cons. Having said that, for three years I worked with a lady who ran the libraries at the Old Colony Correctional Center. Although she comported herself with dignity, her humor was decidedly off-color. One old-time con discovered this, and would quietly share off-color jokes. She’d smile, or groan, or laugh. I was a few years out of library school at the time, and was horrified. I remember telling her that this was inappropriate, that she was sending the wrong signal to the population, that because she was a woman in a man’s prison she was setting herself up. She acknowledged my concerns, but felt that her humor was a part of her, and shouldn’t be suppressed. More importantly, no one in Administration ever saw the need to call her on it (that I’m aware of). And she went on to have a long, successful career. Was she the exception to the rule?

      As far as the “Do you like me?” comment, that question was posed to set up the one immediately following. In other words, the context needs to be considered. I’m not walking around the joint desperately seeking boosts to my self-esteem by asking random cons “Do you like me?” Although that might prove amusing….

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