If You Don't Laugh, You'll Cry
The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers
University of Wisconsin Press 2017
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in AnthropologyNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in FolkloreNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Public PolicyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network February 8, 2018 Rachel Hopkin
Claire Schmidt is not a prison worker, rather she is a folklorist and an Assistant Professor at Missouri Valley College. However, many members of her extended family in her home state of Wisconsin either were or are prison workers and it is their work-related humor that inspired this book.
If You Don’t Laugh, You’ll Cry: The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) is based on multiple interviews which Schmidt conducted during a decade or more, and also on her memories of hearing relatives talk about their working lives to great comedic effect at family gatherings over the years. Schmidt’s analysis provides many different examples of the ways in which humor can be deployed by prison workers. For example, it can be a means of acclimatizing recent recruits to their new roles as prison officers; it can alleviate the long stretches of tedium that characterize prison work, as well as offer a way to cope with the periods of extremely high stress which punctuate that tedium; it can help officers negotiate the boundaries between their working and their non-working lives; and it can help them to maintain manageable relationships with—and exercise control over—the inmates under their watch.
In presenting her research, Schmidt engages with a range of previous folkloristic studies of work-placed culture. She also situates her subject within a problematic institutional landscape. She highlights the fact that the Wisconsin prison system has the highest incarceration rate of black men in the United States, describing it as a clear example of ongoing and systematic social injustice at the state level (5) and an oppressive structure of institutionalized racism and class warfare that affects both inmates and prison workers (11). She also attends to popular preconceptions about correctional officers which often depicts them as sadistic bullies. Whilst some could be described as such, Schmidt ultimately argues that casting prison workers in the public role of the bad guys keeps the hostile public focus on the relatively powerless individual prison worker as the source of oppression and racism, which deflects the focus of public critique and outrage from the larger social and political institutions that maintain oppression and racism (13).
Rachel Hopkin is a UK born, US based folklorist and radio producer and is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.