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He said, "What were you arrested for, kid?" And I said, "Littering." And they all moved away from me on the bench there...

A stock line whenever a prison is involved, often with I Always Wanted to Say That thrown in for good measure. Either one of the main characters will ask this to somebody else, or one of the 'locals' will ask the main cast. If the question is posed to the main cast, we often won't hear the reply, since we already know what went before, and it's probably far too bizarre to explain, anyway.

A Dead Horse Trope more often lampshaded and subverted than played straight.

Someone's crime will likely have involved pulling the tag off of a mattress or pillow. Bonus points if he's treated as the worst or scariest of the lot.

In Real Life (at least in UK prisons) they often already know - they read the daily courtcase roundup in the local paper so already know who's been sentenced for what and how long.

Examples of What Are You in For? include:

Advertising


Comic Books


Film

  • Ferris Buellers Day Off:
    [-Boy in Police Station: Drugs?
    Jeannie: No thank you, I'm straight.
    Boy: I mean, are you here for drugs?
    Jeannie: Why are you here?
    Boy: Drugs.-]
  • The live-action Transformers movie had this on a helicopter:
    [-Maggie: What'd they get you for?
    Sam: Bought a car. Turned out to be an alien robot. Who knew?-]
  • In Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Asneeze informs Robin that he was in for "Jaywalking". In 12th century Jerusalem. It's a Mel Brooks movie.
  • Happens in The Last Castle when Irwin asks the doctor why he is in prison. The doctor says he was busted for marijuana possession. Irwin points out that marijuana possession will get you discharged from the military but not normally earn you a stint in a maximum security military prison. The doctor agrees and starts to explain, but they are interrupted and the audience never does get to hear the full story.
  • In Killer Klowns From Outer Space, one of the Klowns allows himself to be locked up in the town jail. A nebbish human prisoner then invokes this trope.
  • Played with in The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne maintains his innocence, making everyone else laugh: "everyone's innocent in here" and "[I'm in because] a lawyer fucked me" become Running Gags among Andy's friends, while Red wryly refers to himself as "The only guilty man in Shawshank." ( Andy's telling the truth, though)
  • In the remake of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, the main character's cheating husband found himself in a spaceship with two other guys and one of them asked, "What are you in for?"
  • Played somewhat straight in Down By Law: the arguably tough looking Tom Waits and John Lurie are sent to prison on separate frame-up jobs. Their cellmate, the tiny, meek and bumbling Roberto Benigni reveals in the What Are You In For scene that he's in for a pool hall murder.
  • American History X has a scene in which the main character is talking to a black prisoner why they are in prison. The scene is played straight, however.
  • In Undisputed, there's a code among the prisoners to not to ask such questions casually, as it is seen disrespectful.
  • In Tenth Kingdom, Tony is technically arrested for being found in the Queen's cell (wearing handcuffs) when everybody awoke to find her gone. When asked though, he says that he was arrested for a bank robbery. Which is technically true, he was arrested on Earth for the robbery before fleeing through the magic mirror.


Literature

  • In Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore, the protagonist, Tommy, is in jail. He asks his cell mate what he's in for, and the man replies 'copyright infringement', which he admits isn't really the sort of offense they put you in jail for. Ripping a lawyer's arms out of their sockets, however, is.
  • Winston muses that a question like this is essentially moot in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is only one crime the Party cares about, so the answer is always thoughtcrime.
  • In Help I am being held prisoner by Donald Westlake, the protagonist played a silly prank that ended in a traffic accident. Because said accident resulted in the exposure of a politician's unsavory sexual habits, said politician pulls strings so the protagonist will get punished as hard as possible. Because of this his sentence and the description of his crime, while ambigously vague, make him sound like a hardened, inhuman murderer - so the toughest gang in prison recruit him to their schemes...
  • In the second part of The Stranger, when Meursault is first put into prison, a few people ask him what he's in for. "Killing an Arab." Guess what kind of people are mostly in that prison.


Live Action TV

  • Monk once went to prison on an undercover mission. His cellmate quickly noticed that he was obviously unused to prison and didn't seem like a criminal type. When he asked What Are You in For?, Monk improvised and said "Embezzlement."
  • An episode of Scrubs has Elliot and Carla arrested for soliciting a male prostitute (they wanted to do a favor for a female patient who didn't want to die a virgin). At the station, Elliot asks people going in what they're in for and brags that they're in for prostitution. Carla tells her to stop enjoying it so much.
  • In Martial Law the cop duo go undercover in jail. The Asian one's backstory is killing a dozen people in a restaurant shootout, and the black guy, purse theft.
  • After Helena from The L Word is sent to jail, she's scared of her cell mate, who whe's sure is a murderer. Actually, she's in for embezzlement, she just works out a lot.
  • From the US Queer as Folk when a letter addressed to Ben arrives while he's at work and Hunter wants to open it:

 Michael: "Well, you can't open someone elses mail. It's a federal offense."

Hunter: "I can see it now: I'm on death row, awaiting lethal injection. This mass murderer who killed 48 babies and ate them asks me what I'm being executed for. I say: 'Opening Ben's letter.'"

  • In an episode of Heres Lucy, Lucy goes undercover in a women's prison. When she is first asked this question, she replies:

 Lucy:Highway robbery.

Matron:Highway robbery?

Lucy:Yeah. I stole Route 66.


Music

  And the meanest, ugliest, nastiest one, the meanest father raper of them all, was coming over to me and he was mean 'n' ugly 'n' nasty 'n' horrible and all kind of things and he sat down next to me and said, "Kid, whad'ya get?" I said, "I didn't get nothing, I had to pay $50 and pick up the garbage." He said, "What were you arrested for, kid?" And I said, "Littering." And they all moved away from me on the bench there...

    • Then he adds "And 'Disturbing the Peace'," and all the criminals move back and become friends with him.


Newspaper Comics

  • As alluded to in the explanatory section, Wade from U.S. Acres steps on a rake, sending him into a musical number, followed by a short trial sentencing him to 9999 years in prison. Once there, two inmates brag about their crimes. When Wade sheepishly admits his, the other two pull on the bars, terrified of sharing a cell with such a psychopath.
    • Similar to this, in a comic strip this troper saw, two criminals are bragging about their crimes, when their third cellmate says that he's in for beating up Santa, causing the other two to cower in a corner.
  • In an older Dilbert story, Dilbert was sent to jail after killing one of the company executives with an ear of corn. Mere seconds after he shares this with his cellmate...
    Dilbert: Hey, look! Corn for lunch. Can you believe that?
    • In another strip, the Pointy-Haired Boss decides to rent to firm's unused cubicles to the state - as cells for prisoners. Cue the criminal asking Dilbert what he's in for.
  • In one Bloom County strip, Opus ends up in jail, and learns that his new cellmate is in for "strangling Oakland." And no, it's not a colorful sports metaphor. It means he strangled each and every single person in Oakland.


Stand Up Comedy

  • Brian Regan discusses this here.
  • Chris Rock tries to sound as tough as possible to the other inmates when he's in for "driving too slow". In another stand-up, a white-collar criminal says he's in for embezzling funds, and his fellow inmate replies that he's in for stealing 48 pairs of socks.

 "My feet was feelin' good!"


Theater

  • Madea Goes To Jail. Well the titular character's cellmate already knows why she's there.
  • In the second Bottom Live stage show:

 Eddie: That's Geoffrey Nasty, the Psychopathic Penis-Remover.

Richie: Oh! What's he in for?

Eddie:(exasperated) Removing penises!


Webcomics

  • In this Dominic Deegan strip.
  • Freefall has Florence (the sentient wolf) in the dog pound, asking this question to the pooch in the next cage.
  • In Girl Genius, Phil Foglio is in prison for including the Prince as a character in his story. And when Agatha enters Castle Heterodyne, she is asked if she can cook, and says yes. Then, when asked what she's in for, she says she poisoned thirty-seven people because they complained about her cooking.
  • In The Lydian Option, played straight with the prisoners revealing offenses ranging from the major (murder) to the minor (a bar fight), all with the same punishment.
  • The title character of Rosa sardonically asks her dead skeleton cellmate, Ol' Gil, this question.
  • Dozerfleet works run the gamut on this one, but it's often subverted.
    • Nobody bothers to ask this of Liquidon in season 2 of Stationery Voyagers. A Whixtitian on Neothode is automatically a sure sign that bad things are happening.
    • At the end of Volkonir: Rise of Semaphry, pretty much all of downtown Washington has witnessed Kayla de-mogrify from Semaphry back to her civilian form. They also know Volkonir helped Carlos escape, and Kayla battling Gwirdons inside the Social Security building while convincing a staff member to repair the Death Master File to get Hanom's name off it pretty much guarantees that her story is all over the news. The inmates leave her alone after she is arrested, because they can't make heads or tails of her and would rather not find out.
    • Nobody ever has to ask Cherinob what she's in for. They're too busy cowering in fear that she'll have another Superpower Meltdown if they don't behave.
    • Krystal Travin responds: "I let the radioactive genie out of the thermonuclear bottle." No further explanation needed.
    • "The Bison!" screams the woman still possessed by him. Those two words say it all.
    • Candi's charges were broadcast at Madison by the warden himself to all the other girls. To be fair, he humiliates all the other girls one at a time. Even this is parodied with the dialog surrounding Nancy's charges. Except for the times she was in protective custody, the Kirby Act ensures that Candi's sentences are a very-poorly-kept secret.
    • Dolly gets ditto Candi's treatment as an adult. As a teen, they threw her in jail in Green Bay and let her keep her protest sign so everyone would know why she was in there. It actually makes the other prisoners sympathetic. In her later ventures, pretty much everyone already knows her story before she goes in.
    • Miriam can't keep it a secret that she was working with the Purge-Flare. Or that they had a thing. She does, however, manage to keep being Sniperbadger a secret...until Tamperwolf sells her out. When she was captured in China years later, nobody questioned why she was in jail. She was given special protections, because everyone in China wanted a piece of Sniperbadger.
    • Pam, as "the Bride of Extirpon," has her reason summarized in her title.
    • Everyone already knows that Stephanie is crazy, and that her robots tend to blow up a lot.
    • Hea is best friends with the Gray Champion. It's not that hard to figure out.
    • Emily Cormier's name gives it away: married to Jeral "Botan the Plant-Man" Cormier.
    • Many refer to Mingmei by her codename of "Stung Hornet," or address her as "Agent." Anyone who doesn't already know, can quickly figure it out.
    • Keet Kabo requires no explanation. Anyone familiar with the Kirby Act can guess by taking one look.
    • The guys' sentences and charges are already made known. Time Capsule is viewed as being the least deserving of being there, second only to Wilbur, as he was merely a passenger on the ship that crashed into the toolshed and had no control.
    • A Running Gag in Camelorum Adventures is that the characters' charges make no sense or are just too strange to be taken seriously.

Western Animation

 Tattletale Strangler: (in prison) Well, at least I'm safe from that yellow idiot.

Patrick: (in the same cell as him) Hey, mac. (The Strangler faces him) What're you in for?

(Episode ends)

 First criminal: I've robbed 50 banks and 60 gas stations.

Second criminal: Well, I robbed 70 banks, see, and 90 gas stations. And I stole the Klopman Diamond. What are you in for?

Wade: Uh, I tore a tag off a pillow.

(the criminals run for the bars and scream for help)

  • Animaniacs: Rita asks Runt this when they first meet in the city pound. Runt's answer is "peeing on the floor".
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