Laugh to Keep from Crying

Olethus Hill Jr.


Here we go again, I thought to myself as I followed directions and shuffled into one of the two single-file lines of chow hall workers forming along the metal and concrete kitchen wall. I’d been a cook in the prison’s kitchen for a little over a year at this point, and life for me had just begun to balance out. My body went into autopilot as my mind instinctively prepared for what was to come. Feelings of dread, humiliation and degradation immediately invaded—nothing drastic had even taken place yet. I glanced at the small-statured millennial next to me, and instantly recognized the all-too-familiar look of annoyed anxiety plastered on his face. I then looked in the opposite direction, towards the middle-aged, portly corrections officer who stood a few feet away, with the same look of annoyed anxiety—confirming what I already knew.

“OK now, I want y’all to strip ’em out one by one, and no one leaves until they’re searched,” the balding, six-foot, dad-bodied man in charge barked at his subordinates.

I took a deep breath as my eyes closed and my head fell to my chest. I’d been through this procedure more times than I could count (and counting), and it had never gotten any easier. To me, the single most degrading and dehumanizing thing one could do to a human being is strip search them. Not only is it the biggest invasion of privacy EVER, but it also makes me feel like less of a man—or human, for that matter. Sure, no human being wants to be strip searched against their will, but for a lot of men, to be strip searched by another man feels as though they’re being stripped of their manhood—what it means to be a man—in the process. Emasculated. I take pride in being a man, and whenever I’m strip searched, that pride diminishes and is replaced with feelings of humiliation; it leaves me questioning my identity.

I could almost feel the angst of the twenty other men in attendance, with my own increasing by the second. My mind became jumbled with random thoughts as it clamored for a distraction, something to dub over the bad scene about to take place in my life’s movie. I stood in a slight daze for a few moments, staring at the ground before—out of nowhere—I chuckled. It was happening. My natural defense was kicking in.

I’m paraphrasing, but I remember reading somewhere that, when confronted with an enduring traumatic experience, the brain occupies itself with something more positive, usually in the form of song, a happy thought or memory, faith, or laughter as a means of survival. To put it plainly, it’s how slaves survived slavery or how Jews survived the Holocaust. It’s also how I and every other incarcerated individual survive the daily mental, emotional, and sometimes physical traumas that come with the territory—fear, loneliness, anxiety, violence, sexual assault, neglect and regret, to name a few.

After all, the Thirteenth Amendment made it legal for criminals to be enslaved, so there are some parallels. While the living conditions and amenities are a half-step better than what slaves had, the hierarchical structure between inmates and staff (slave and master) is still the same. Not to mention the general view of inmates as being less than human, which is eerily similar to the three-fifths view of slaves. 

“What’s so funny?” the millennial asked in a hushed tone.

I was hesitant to say at first, but I guess, subconsciously, a part of me wanted to protect the kid too.

The movie Next Friday just popped into my head,” I replied with another chuckle.

There’s an iconic scene in the movie where a character named Pinky enters his record store and thinks he’s being robbed. He goes on a hysterically irrational rant, only to find out afterwards that he was utterly wrong. Like me, the youngster knew the scene word for word. Something about the officer seemed to channel that character.

We recited a few lines from that scene and, just like that [*finger snap*], gone was our anxiety. For the better part of two minutes, it was like we weren’t in prison, standing in line, waiting to be stripped naked and perform a choreographed dance routine in front of another grown man. We laughed quietly—or as quietly as we could—while we recited lines and acted out other scenes and characters from the movie, essentially and effectively taking our minds off the situation at hand. Surviving.

As with most bad story plots, I’m sure one can guess what happened next, but for the sake of finishing what I’ve started, I’ll continue.

You two!” Officer Pinky yelled as he walked toward us and pointed at the floor. “Step over there!”

[*Finger snap*]

Just as quickly as we’d shifted our minds away from our negative reality, we were thrust right back into the proverbial briar patch. The millennial and I exchanged confused looks, took three steps away from where we already stood, and leaned up against another wall, unsure if we were in trouble or not.

Y’all think this is funny? Y’all think I’m playin’?” he hollered.

No, but I do think you’re a clown, is what I wanted to say. Instead, I opted to grit my teeth and bear it. My now partner-in-crime, on the other hand, was just as irritated with what was taking place but less resolved to hide his true sentiments on the subject.

We ain’t even do nothin’ sir,” the young man stated bristly. “This is bullshit!” he continued, his voice trailing at the end.

Pain and anger emanated from the young man, like heat from a fire, and everyone around him could feel it. Everyone except for the man in charge, that is.

With blatant disregard for what had just been said by the young man, bald Pinky turned towards his colleague, the portly built officer beside him, and said, “Make sure these two go next, and get ‘em outta my kitchen! They’re fired!”

After going out of his way to make his declaration known to the kitchen staff, he turned back towards the kid and me and said, “If I see either of you in this kitchen for ANYTHING, you’re goin’ to the hole!”

I let out another sigh and let my head fall to my chest again. Struggling to make sense of what was taking place, I stood silently and actively fought within myself to remain calm. The way I saw it, we’d done nothing to warrant the reaction we were getting. Unfortunately, overly aggressive officers are a norm in prison—and that went double for the man in charge, who was notorious for being an asshole—but this was excessive even for him.

My train of thought was derailed by the kid’s mutters of displeasure over being fired for virtually nothing. I didn’t care as much about losing my cook job, but I empathized with him. On the other hand, I was more concerned with the looming naked dance recital I still had to perform. Ninety-five percent of the time, strip searches are conducted because there’s a suspicion of drugs or other contraband—the other five percent is out of spite—so even though I’d been fired, I still had to be vetted.

The youngster’s grumbles got me thinking about the irony of being fired on my day off—just like Craig in the movie Friday. I couldn’t help but let out another chuckle. Despite officer Pinky being within earshot, I felt like it couldn’t get any worse than it already was, so I continued to share my humorous thoughts with the kid, hoping to talk him off the cliff of rage he was teetering on.

The moment the kid cracked a smile, officer Pinky was on us like—[*finger snap*]—that. Only this time, his vexation seemed to be aimed directly at me.

“Does this look like a game to you?” he asked aggressively.

On the surface, I remained calm, but on the inside, I was brimming with just as much fury as the kid—possibly more. It took a lot of energy for me not to lash out and make my true feelings known. I’d been in this moment before, and I knew that no matter how right we may be, we’d still be considered wrong.

The ten or so men in our immediate vicinity silently watched and waited to see what my response would be, and as crazy as this may sound, I did too! To say I was caught off guard would be an understatement, but if there’s one thing I don’t respond well to, it’s bullying, especially when there’s an audience. This, however, wasn’t your typical bully. This bulky man had major authority. I had to be a bit more tactful with my response, or I risked escalating the situation.

“Sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from crying,” I said sincerely.

I’d heard the old adage numerous times, but I’d never fully understood its magnitude until I said it—and felt it. It was the best way to not only respectfully respond to the bullying, but also to caption what the young man and I were feeling at that moment. I didn’t expect a slow clap of glory or anything from it, I just wanted to help the man in charge understand. But I might as well have been talking to my reflection in the nearby glass because this jerk still managed to take things a half-step further.

“Cry!?” he shouted incredulously. “Oh I can give you somethin’ to cry about!”

Once again, the millennial and I found ourselves sharing a look of confusion before we both seemed to conclude, with a shake of our heads, that trying to rationalize with bald Pinky was a lost cause.

Moments later, the kid was the first one to go into one of the two bathrooms now doubling as impromptu shakedown rooms. Although the process only takes about a minute from start to finish—a few seconds less if you’re familiar with the routine—it still feels like an eternity.

Once the kid’s minute of suffering was up, he emerged from the bathroom and avoided eye contact with everyone as he jetted out the door, but the distress of what he’d just gone through was written all over his face. I could see the tears he was holding back.

It was now my turn. I hurried into the bathroom, trying not to waste any more time than I had to. I needed no instructions. I went into autopilot, desperately scrolling my thoughts in search of something to help me temporarily cope. Unfortunately, I’d used all my creative fuel getting to this point and forgot to keep some for the return trip. I was forced to remain in the moment during the search and agonize until its end.

Incidents such as these take place on a daily basis in prison, in different ways and on different levels. Whether it’s dealing with power-trippy staff, the ignorance and/or disrespect of fellow inmates, or the stresses the outside world provides, everyday there’s something negative to face. Something that consistently poses a threat to your survival and attempts to chip away at your humanity.

Metaphorically speaking, we (prisoners) are in a constant state of being stripped. Stripped of our freedoms, time with loved ones, the ability to think for ourselves, our identity, masculinity (or femininity or gender identity) and anything else one in this situation could be stripped of—and the end result is usually laughter or a mental breakdown.

I’m willing to bet that you can probably walk into just about any prison in America and find laughter. I’m talking about the knee-slapping, belly-aching, tear-producing kind. Understandably, most people might imagine this to be the last place to find a good laugh, but in my experience, it’s the best place in the world to get one.

There’s no shortage of characters or material. In fact, I’ve met some of the funniest people I’ve ever encountered in my life in prison. I’m talking about natural born comedians, who, under the right circumstances, could’ve made comedy their careers.

Take for instance this guy I used to play cards with. I’ll refrain from using his name, but he was the main reason I played on a daily basis. What’s so crazy is, I HATED the way he played cards. However, what he lacked in card sense, he more than made up for in personality. Built like (and resembling) an oversized worm-guy from the movie Men in Black, this guy would have us in tears, laughing at his trash talk or the little dance he did (that I swear could go viral) when he did something right. His lingo and character, in general, were so uniquely infectious that we still mimic it to this day! 

Then there’s an older guy I talk to on the daily, whose trash talk always starts with the words, “This-no-lie,” before he commences to tell you just that—and then some.

Not long ago, I watched a very insightful documentary. In it were some of the world’s most popular comedians talking about their craft. They all agreed that the best comedy usually came from a dark place or time in their lives that they managed to find irony in. A place of pain. I was reminded of Kevin Hart’s stand-up special, appropriately titled, Laugh at My Pain. But there was also Richard Pryor, who expertly took moments from his life, such as his drug addiction or his fear of snakes, and turned them into comedy gold. 

If the comedians in the documentary are correct in their analyses, then you’d be hard pressed to find a better source of pain than prison.

For me, laughter has always served as a means of therapy. Throughout my years, I’ve found myself leaning on it regularly, chasing the natural high that you can only get from laughter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy to be here—not in the slightest—but freedom would be about the only thing I’d trade for some of the laughs I’ve had during my incarceration. I don’t ever remember laughing myself to tears as much prior to prison. Anyone who’s laughed that much knows how cathartic that can be.

Comedy and prison seemingly go hand in hand. Laughter is more sought-after than drugs and, from what I’ve come to learn, can be stronger than them as well. It’s our main escape, a source of temporary freedom from the sometimes unbearable oppression and hardships one endures in here. It’s the only thing we have to keep us from crying.