America is fascinated by prisons and prison culture, but few Americans understand what it is like to work in corrections. English alumna Claire Schmidt (2003), whose extended family includes three generations of Wisconsin prison workers, introduces readers to penitentiary officers and staff as they share stories, debate the role of corrections in American racial politics and social justice, and talk about the important function of humor in their jobs.
In a state that locks up a disproportionate number of men and women of color, white prison workers occupy a complicated social position as representatives of institutional authority and bearers of social stigma. The job, by turns dangerous, dull, or dehumanizing, is aided by a quick wit, comedic timing, and verbal agility. The men and women who do this work rely on storytelling, practical jokes, and sarcasm to bond with each other, build flexible relationships with inmates, and create personal identities that work in and out of prison. Schmidt shows how this humorous occupational culture both upholds and undermines prisons as social institutions.
Issues of power and race, as well as sex and gender, infuse Schmidt’s groundbreaking analysis, and she also engages with current scholarship about identity, occupational folklore, and family narrative. This eye-opening, provocative book reveals the invisible culture, beliefs, and aesthetics embedded in workplace humor.