The Butt of People’s Jokes

People in prison are treated as a legitimate target for scorn and exploitation. Because of this we have our voices and agency stripped from us and people who know nothing of life in prison are free to fill the silence. They leap to the assumption that incarcerated people are dirty, violent, rude, racist, drug addicted rapists and killers. They then use this assumption to say we must be kept in our cages, or simply make us the butt of a throwaway joke.

These jokes do not help. The most common one I see is based on presenting us as having a complete inability to share space with others. I, as an incarcerated person, usually chuckle at these, but not for the reason you might think.

In prison, there is no such thing as “personal private space.” A cell as small as most peoples’ bathrooms, 2 meters by 4 meters (7′ x 14′) is shared by two people who, much like college freshmen, often meet at the same time they move in together. Chain busses full to bursting make trips that can be as long as 15 hours during which the passengers get a single water bottle to drink, nothing to eat, and the chemical toilet in the back lacks not just a door, but walls as well. Doctors’ waiting rooms are regularly packed to standing room only while the sick and injured wait for hours to be seen.

If there is one thing people in prison know how to do, it’s navigate and negotiate crowded spaces in respectful ways that create a minimum of conflict.

Society forgets that prison has good people and bad, brave people and cowards, angry people and those with the patience of a saint. We laugh, weep, argue, forgive, and yes, we even love. Ya know, just like any other group of humans. What sets us apart is that we have made mistakes and poor life choices which caused harm to other people. That’s why we are in prison. Many of us, like myself, will spend the rest of our lives trying to mend the unmendable. I don’t chuckle at jokes which degrade incarcerated people because they’re funny. I laugh because it hurts.


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