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The Twenty Minute Trainer: Laugh a Lot, Live a Lot
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 02/15/2010

Laughing I have to confess that I have always been known as the “class clown”. From grade school on, I reveled in doing impersonations, practical jokes, and telling puns. However, when I entered the field of corrections, I toned down the humor and toned up the seriousness of my profession. But, there was always room for humor.

I came across an article from the November-December 1996 issue of American Jails titled “Are We Too Serious? The Value of Humor in Jail Work” by William F. Waters, MS/MSW, an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Northern Michigan University. He writes of the value of humor in law enforcement work.

Waters cites the journal that was kept as a class project by one of the Northern Michigan University students, who also happened to be a full time corrections officer. He noticed that the humor he encountered was dark and personally exploitive and permeated much of the conversations between staff and inmates. The humor also dealt with discussions about the job and staff/inmate relations. However presented, it was humor and its intent was to induce amusement and laughter. However he noticed a key point: humor plays a big part and serves as an important function in correctional work; inmates and staff use it as a coping mechanism to address the ‘grim’ nature of both the environment and their lives. After all, correctional officers feel at times that they are as locked up as the inmates. Working and living inside a facility are stressful aspects of correctional facilities.

Citing research by Pogebrin and Poole in 1988, humor among police officers serves several purposes [which can also be applied to correctional officers]:
  • Humor helps to expose commonly shared experiences and concerns that officers may have trouble expressing. It provides the means to test and bring into the open officers’ attitudes, perceptions and feelings. We feel better when we express ourselves, even in a humorous way.
  • Humor provides social solidarity-or in other words when officers all laugh-they belong. As a supervisor who had five major transfers to different department sections, I knew that I was accepted when my staff made me the brunt of some good natured jokes and humorous banter. The old saying is true-if people like you, they will laugh and be light hearted, if they do not- no one will talk to you.
  • Humor serves as a coping strategy that officers use to manage forces that are beyond their control. “Gallows” humor –the bad jokes, ‘wisecracks’ or one liners can take the edge off a stressful situation, a crisis or a tragedy. By doing so, the situation is less threatening. We calm down; tension ebbs.

Humor can be taken down the wrong road-belittling inmates and staff and sarcastically making them the brunt of jokes, being racially and ethnically prejudiced, and not taking the job seriously. More clearly-humor can be a negative thing at times, and any veteran officer knows it. For example, telling racially charged jokes around staff and inmate minorities is not a way to facilitate a positive work atmosphere. Also, there is not one correctional officer that has not engaged in griping about the upper management at times. But officers joking about the ‘brass” and putting them down over and over can wear thin; don’t forget that the inmates can pick up on that too.

Humor can make us feel better. That is good for our health and stress management. In my ‘burnout days’ I griped a lot. When I learned how to handle my stress, I found a great coping mechanism-humorous videos. After a stressful day, I would come home and put in a funny video. I laughed and felt better. Humor is good for the body and soul. It breaks the tension and the world looks a lot less bleak and dark. Comedy clubs are also a fun way to occasionally unwind. Just laughing and finding humor in every day personal and professional lives are good for us.

So, how do we put more stress relieving humor into the workplace? We realize that loosening up is OK at certain times. These times include after an incident such as an inmate fight or confrontation where we must wind down. We also must realize that when an officer cracks a joke, not everyone may be amused. We must know when to turn it off and on-working in corrections demands attention to detail being vigilant, thoroughness and keeping alert. “Goofing around” on the job too much can make us less efficient.

We also deal with people and must show respect, treating others with basic dignity. For example, my first tour in classification-seven years-had me in intake where I conducted interviews on thousands of inmates. I recall interviewing one who thought that he was a warlock and possessed mystical powers. I conducted the interview with a straight face-a “poker face”. The inmate was obviously delusional. He said that he could move fixed objects. Back in the office, we considered (jokingly) asking him to lengthen a couple of cellblocks so we could fit more inmates into the jail and reduce overcrowding. We all have approached a colleague and commented about a “crazy” inmate that we have encountered. I remember laughing about an inmate who was caught on a fugitive’s warrant and extradited back to our jail from another state. While on the run, he probably watched too many episodes of The Fugitive-he tried to dye his jet black hair blonde with an over the counter women’s’ hair coloring kit. The result was a “day glow” orange color. I recall that he was booked in on a rushed, hell bent for leather day-but we in the office laughed-but not when we talked to the inmate or were around him.

Every squad or section has a “clown”-and the humor makes us feel better; it takes the edge off. A few guidelines for good taste are:
  • Keep it clean: Off color risqué humor-dirty jokes, etc. makes us look less professional and tend to violate sexual misconduct and sexual harassment guidelines. If inmates see staff engaging in unprofessional behavior, they will target them in attempts to manipulate, playing on a lack of ethics. For example, telling dirty jokes within the earshot of inmates can result in the inmates thinking that the officer has a casual attitude towards sex. The next thing would be for inmates to joke around with the officer about sex, the next thing would be to flirt, etc.
  • Keep it timely: People who are hurt emotionally or physically may not appreciate wisecracks and insensitive remarks. Engage your mind before you open your mouth. A stupid comment to the wrong person at the wrong time can trigger a verbal or physical altercation.
  • Keep it occasional: It is not a good idea to joke around all of the time. Let inmates know by your behavior that the missions of security and safety are always number one.
  • Do not use inmates, especially the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, weak, effeminate, or sexually different-such as inmates who are gay, lesbian, transsexual, transvestite, transgender, etc. as the brunt or target of jokes. This also includes not making fun of foreign inmates or inmates of various ethnic or religious groups. Other inmates will add fuel to the fire by engaging in their brand of humor, which could lead into harassment or assaults-verbal and physical. That is all you need-breaking up arguments and fights between inmates or investigating an assault.

Humor is good for us. But-staff must exercise discretion in using it.

Life is less vile when we smile………………………….
(I made it up myself.)

Reference: W.F. Waters, “Are We Too Serious? The Value of Humor in Jail Work”, American Jails, November/December 1996, pp. 47-51. See also: Pogrebrin, M. and E. Poole, “Humor in the Briefing Room: A Study of the Strategic Uses of Humor Among Police,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Volume 17, Number 2, July 1988, pp. 183-210.

Other articles by Gary F. Cornelius:


  1. hamiltonlindley on 04/15/2020:

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  2. debmac on 02/10/2010:

    Very good article. Too often we see the negative aspectsm of our job. We forget to look for the "lighter" moments that go a long ways towards relieving the stress.

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