USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘prison’
Folk Beliefs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

What to do if you go to jail

Information about the Informant

My informant is a university professor of English and American literature. He grew up in Chicago during the 1950s, and fought in the latter half of the Vietnam War. After that, he returned and received his degree in English Literature at UC Irvine. He has worked on many textbooks and movies that deal with the Vietnam War.

Transcript

“I was once taught, at the age of twelve, what I should do if, if I went to jail. And the man gave me three pieces of advice. One, keep your mouth shut. Two, keep your eyes and ears open. Three, find the toughest guy in your cell block, and start a fight with him. ‘Cause even if you lose, he’s gonna respect you and nobody else is gonna fuck with you.”

Analysis

I believe, although I could be wrong, that this advice has become widespread or a bearer of the advice has become a published author or told it to someone who then published it, because I believe I have seen this piece of advice in a book once. While not fixed enough (and probably too long to ever be fixed), to be considered a proverb, the advice is still worded memorably enough that it is easily remembered and passed along. There is almost a certain lyrical quality to it. The concept of keeping one’s mouth shut is offset by the second part of the advice which involves keeping two other orifices open, and there is the implication that this is a balance, where one shuts one’s mouth and, to compensate for that, one also keeps one’s ears and eyes open. The third part of the advice then comes as a disruption to the balance of this advice, especially the way it was worded by my informant. Whereas the first two parts are standard pieces that could be told to more than just people going to jail, told by mothers to their children, told by bosses to their workers, the third part really establishes the context and the brutality of the environment in which the complete advice is applicable.

Customs
Material

Style of Dress – American

Some American men wear very baggy pants and let them sag to show their boxers. The informant learned the following folk explanation as to the origin of the style “maybe right around high school, or, um, when [she] was just past high school and [her] little brother was doing it when he was in high school. She doesn’t remember from whom she first heard the explanation, but she recalls first seeing the style in high school: “Um, it seemed to be something that, uh, a lot of the African-American guys would do in high school. Uh, but now I see a lot of people do it and it’s just . . . it’s not good [laughter].”

The informant heard that the style originated in prison, where the low man on the sexual totem pole would wear saggy pants: “Basically, uh, young boys and even grown men tend to wear baggy pants or pants that they sag down past their boxer shorts, showing almost all of their boxer shorts, wearing pants that are, you know, a good ten sizes too bit for them. What they don’t realize is the true meaning of the sagging jeans, sagging pants. Uh, it actually stems from prison. Uh, the man who would wear the saggy pants, um, that were sagging past his butt actually indicated that he was the man that men would go to, uh, for, uh, for intercourse. And it showed that he was basically the bitch of the cellblock. So, uh, basically indicated that he was the one who would, uh, take it in the rear, for lack of better terms.”

The informant regards the style itself with a mixture of rue and amusement: “This nugget of knowledge is something that I wish more younger men would understand . . . Um . . . but I don’t think most men get that today who sag their pants. They think it looks cool but they don’t really see that is indicated that they are the, the prison bitch. So I think that that’s interesting. Um, if they do know this they don’t seem to care. Uh, but I think it’s just something that most people who sag their pants aren’t familiar with. So they are, um, unassumingly, uh, displaying their wares, as it were.

The informant shared the explanation with her nephew, “who actually seemed to have gotten the hint once it was explained to him.” She says that she would share it with anyone she felt comfortable with and wanted to have more respect for him- or herself: “If I was comfortable with approaching the individual, egh, like if it was my nephew. Or my brother, or somebody who, um, who is younger than me who I would be an authority—kind of an authority figure to, who would respect my, uh, input. I’m not just going to stop a random guy on the street and say, ‘Hey, you know that means you’re a prison bitch?’ ’cause that’s just not cool. But I think I would if it was somebody that I cared about, like a relative or a workmate or somebody that I, y’know, had a little bit more respect for and wanted them to respect themselves more, I would share that information with them.”

The folk explanation could be true, although it does seem like a story that might be dispensed by parents and other adults to discourage children from wearing a style their relatives find distasteful, as the informant used it on her nephew. It would be effective for that purpose because prison inmates are looked down upon and anal sex is still somewhat taboo, so impressionable boys might not wish to associate themselves with the former or symbolically invite the latter. Saggy pants could be considered an American folk costume, since the style has not been much endorsed by authorities—the folk group being, if this story is true, prison inmates and their imitators.

[geolocation]