Academic journal article Western Folklore

"There's Nothing Funny about Prisons": Corrections Workers, Laughter and Unlaughter

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"There's Nothing Funny about Prisons": Corrections Workers, Laughter and Unlaughter

Article excerpt

Occupational humor can at times act as a unifying force across social and economic boundaries but can also be a tool of division and a marker of conflict in identity and class. This essay, which focuses on participation in occupational humor of prison workers, argues that occupational laughter and its correlate, unlaughter (as proposed by Michael Billig in 2005 and employed by Moira Smith in 2009) can serve as predictors for occupational endurance in corrections work. Using Ted Conover's ethnographic book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and my own fieldwork among Wisconsin corrections workers I explore the relationships between joking behavior, affection, class identity, and the choice whether or not to laugh. According to my findings, participation in occupational humor often corresponds to higher job satisfaction and ultimately to long-term occupational success, while occupational unlaughter can be a warning sign for occupational incompatibility. This project suggests that unlaughter is at times motivated by class identity, and that mutually successful fieldwork relationships may be predicated by a need to laugh. Corrections officers stand at the borders of class war; in prison but without a sentence, their humor reflects this conflicted, liminal space.

Conover and I are interested in similar questions, but our methodologies are quite different. Ted Conover's New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing, is a 300-page work of literary journalism, based on a nine-month undercover stint as a prison guard at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. My own research project, of which this essay is a small piece, has its roots in fieldwork beginning in 2003; a comparative ethnography of the occupational humor of prison workers and social workers. Ted Conover says he undertook his book project as a participant-observer, interested in the stereotype of the prison guard as violent tough guy. He says,

By combining journalism with anthropology, I've tried in previous writings not simply to observe but to participate in the lives of railroad tramps, illegal Mexican immigrants, Kenyan truckers, and even the elite of Aspen, Colorado...Short of ecoming an inmate, I thought, how could you ever learn what that world was like?...I wanted to hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of guards-those on the front lines of our prison policies; society's proxies. . . . This stereotyping of guards was particularly interesting to me. Was it true? And if so, was that because the job tends to attract tough guys predisposed to violence? OR were guards normal men who became violent once enmeshed in the system? If the stereotype was false, why did it persist? (Conover 2000:19)

I, on the other hand, have undertaken my project because both of my grandfathers worked for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. My uncle, my ersatz godfather, my mother's best friend are still corrections officers. My parents both went to school in Waupun, Wisconsin-known as "Prison City" because of the two prisons within city limits and correctional facilities in nearby towns. I grew up eating Thanksgiving dinner with prison workers, going camping with prison workers, babysitting their children and being babysat by them. Thus, I grew up laughing at their stories, and thinking that prison guards were funny people. Like Conover, I, too, am interested in the stereotype of the violent, ignorant, and sadistic prison worker. I am interested by the American appetite for stories about prisons, particularly stories and jokes about anal rape and vicious guards. Given the high cost of prisons to federal and state budgets-now 52 billion dollars a year, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Center on the State-understanding how prisons work, and how those who work there manage and make meaning on a dayto-day basis, is, I think, a good project for a folklorist.

Occupational folklore scholarship has tended historically to focus on traditions of physical labor performed by working class or blue-collar men. …

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