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. If asked to someone else, the answer is almost always truthful, no matter how vile the crime or criminal. (Lying never seems to be an option.) 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. In countries where this is not the case (Russia, for example), they still either already know or will soon be able to verify your words, using the rumor telegraph and illegally smuggling notes and letters from facility to facility.
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- Brian Regan discusses this in his bit about crimes.
- 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!"
- In a MAD parody of The Longest Yard (first version), this results in a long list of murders, ending with "and strangling a tractor".
- Krage asks this question at the end of the Marvel Adventures: The Avengers comic he appears in to Fancy Dan (who mistakenly spam-called Iron Man).
- Underground comics author Dan O'Neill was sued by Disney for using company characters in a couple of comic books. He defiantly persisted, drawing up his legal travails in a comic strip, concluding with his imagining how he'd fare in prison, his cellmate played by Pegleg Pete:
Pete: Hi, mate, I'm in for rape and murder. How 'bout you?
O'Neill: [nervously] Uhh... I drew a picture of Mickey Mouse...
- In Swamp Thing, Abby goes to jail for "crimes against nature" when her relationship with the title character becomes public knowledge. Her cellmate, after relating how she was caught shoplifting, asks her what she's in for. Abby, in no mood for small talk, says, "Hugging vegetables." The cellmate backs away to the other end of the bench.
- In The Walking Dead the heroes ask this question of the small group of surviving inmates they encounter at the zombie-infested prison and are are told armed robbery, tax fraud, drugs, and murder. It's probably not hard to pick out which one of these is eventually, horribly, revealed to be a bald-faced lie.
- U.S. Acres:
- As alluded to in the explanatory section, Wade 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, 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 story, Dilbert is 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 yet another, Dogbert converts the house to an upscale prison. Dilbert bitterly explains this to the asking prisoner, who concludes that he's the wrong guy to talk to during happy hour.
- In an older story, Dilbert is sent to jail after killing one of the company executives with an ear of corn. Mere seconds after he shares this with his cellmate...
- 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.
Films — Live-Action
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
- Happens in The Santa Clause. The waitress at Denny's asks if Scott and Charlie if they're affiliated with the Japanese company seated in the front room. Charlie blurts out "Dad burnt the turkey." Speaking in a dry tone, the waitress leads them into another section of the restaurant, where they are surrounded by other single dads and their children.
- 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, which he provoked by cheating at cards.
- 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 the first Police Academy Mahoney (detained for property damage) asks Jones what is he in for. Jones convincingly imitates the sound of a machine gun, creating panic in the police station. Mahoney decides to take him to the academy too.
- Schindler's List: When Oskar Schindler is arrested by the German police in occupied Poland for possibly violating the Nazi racial acts by kissing a Jewish girl, his cellmate's first question is "What about you?" Schindler's answer prompts the incarcerated man to counter with a lurid anti-Semitic joke.
- In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the hero is asked this by a fellow inmate but refuses to answer. Clearly he was still not over the fact that he was convicted to 10 years of hard labor for stealing $5.
- A rather dark example in the second Fletch movie; the protagonist asks the cellmate - a huge, scary-looking guy - and the guy answers "molesting a dead horse". (Fortunately for Fletch, that's when the cops come in to move the guy.)
- 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.
- When Harry of Incompetence is arrested for Impersonating an Officer, he is forced into a massively overcrowded holding cell for people who are awaiting trial. He notes that asking What Are You in For? used to be a taboo question until an overabundance of regulations and laws that makes criminals of everybody means that hardened criminals need to know if they are mixing with real crooks or people who are arrested for displaying their fruits in pounds instead of kilos. A cellmate does enthusiastically tell Harry in excruciating detail exactly what bureaucratic cock-up led to him being detained, causing Harry's eyes to glaze over.
- 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 she'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 else's 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.
- An early episode of Growing Pains had Mike in jail for graffiti. One of his cellmates asks this question to which he replied, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."
- Friends: Chandler says this to a couple of girls while he's going to talk to Phoebe's policeman boyfriend. He thinks it's funny, they don't.
- 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.
- In the Star Trek: Enterprise episodes "Affliction" and "Divergence" Lieutenant Reed keeps getting into awkward conversations due to getting caught running a black op for Section 31 and being thrown in the brig for it. Since everyone is busy dealing with the Klingons, both he and Captain Archer have no time to explain why he's in the brig to anyone... except when one of the Klingons who attacked the Enterprise gets tossed into the cell next to him. When Reed replies to his inquiry on why he's in the brig with "That's a long story," the Klingon prisoner in turn replies "Entertain me." Reed then manages to give him a minimal-details summary in one line.
- Played straight ("What did they get you for?" "Oh, It's a long story. You wouldn't believe me even if I told you.") and then inverted in the Doctor Who serial "Frontier in Space", when the Third Doctor is sent to a prison full of political prisoners:
Three: Now, that's stealing, you know.
Warden's henchman: That's what I'm in for. Got a troublemaker, have we?
Three: That's what I'm in for.
- Asked multiple times throughout Orange Is the New Black. Occasionally, new inmates like Piper will be under the impression that it's taboo to ask this question.
- The prison drama Oz averts this frequently relative to their large cast of prisoners, instead introducing new prisoners via Augustus Hill's narration to the audience, in which he also lists the length of the person's sentence. Inmates usually become aware of other inmates' crimes by reputation or by implied offscreen conversations.
- A variation appears in Arlo Guthrie's song/monologue "Alice's Restaurant":
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 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 'Creating a Nuisance'," and all the criminals move back and become friends with him.
- Madea Goes to Jail. Well, the title character's cellmate already knows why she's there.
- A Gulag Mouse. Prushka the Mouse reveals she's serving ten years for telling an "anecdot" - anti-government joke.
- 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!
- In Mask of the Betrayer, the Wychlaran of Mulsantir allows you to take one of the local prisoners to fight with you against the giant bear spirits waiting outside the gaits. Naturally, you get to ask what they're in for: Groznek killed some men who taunted him; Joeb's in for pickpocketing; and Gannayev is there because, well...
Gannayev: My crime? It is a serious one — you see, I am too handsome to look upon.
- In Skyrim you can be thrown in the Markath prison mine. An Orc in there answers the question with:
- In Batman: Arkham Origins, when you infiltrate Blackgate Prison for a second time, you can overhear this exchange via Enemy Chatter:
Criminal A: Oh man, I can't wait. I'm going straight to O'Kane's, havin' a pint.
Criminal B: What's it been for you man, eight years?
Criminal A: Twelve.
Criminal B: And what they put you in for?
Criminal A: Drinkin' and drivin'.
Criminal C: Ha, an' you're gonna go have a pint?
Criminal A: What are you, the damn parole board? I ain't rehabilitated, and I'm really thirsty.
Criminal C: Whatever, just don't drive. You could kill someone.
Criminal A: Yeah yeah, don't worry. What are you in for, anyway?
Criminal C: [matter-of-fact] Manslaughter.
- Max Payne 2 features a long (and hilarious) conversation between two guys stuck in the police stations holding cell about how one of them ended up getting arrested because he ended up stealing a car that had a murder weapon in it. He asks the other guy what he's in for and he just says "Who, me? DUI."
- Mass Effect 2: Shepard can ask this of an NPC on the Purgatory Prison Ship. He casually explains that he killed a few people - only about twenty or so — and blew up "that one habitat". This is apparently small-time by Purgatory standards.
- Freefall has Florence (the sentient wolf) in the dog pound, asking this question to the pooch in the next cage.
- Girl Genius:
- Phil Foglio's Author Avatar is in prison for including the Prince as a character in his story.
- 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.
- On What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?, Nash and Tara will occasionally discuss how awkward these conversations will be for people who committed especially stupid, embarrassing, or petty crimes (like the guy who stole money from a lemonade stand... after they gave him free lemonade.)
- Asked of a demon within the Hell prison in Void Domain.
- The Simpsons:
Homer: What are you in for?
Harmonica-playing Con: Atmosphere.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: In the episode "Spongebob Meets The Strangler";
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?
- In Garfield and Friends, Wade, after ripping the a tag off the bottom of a couch and learning that it's against the law, imagines himself in a prison cell with two dangerous-looking criminals:
First criminal: I've robbed 50 banks and 60 gas stations.
Second criminal: Yeah? 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".
- An episode of Men in Black: The Series features an alien race that's downright obsessive about law and order, complete with an ultra-brutal gulag for housing the many, many lawbreakers they round up. How strict are they? When Jay finds himself in the prison, he asks a fellow inmate what he's in for, and, well, it turns out they take their mattress tags very seriously.
- In the made-for-tv Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends movie "Good Wilt Hunting", Wilt ends up in prison. His cellmates are explaining what they're in for, before they get to Wilt. Wilt just says "I broke a little boy's heart."
- One episode of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated has the gang trying to get help from one of the people they've put away. Shaggy and Scooby, in their usual fashion, slink away to the cafeteria. One inmate asks them what they're in for, and Shaggy responds "The food!"
- In the season 2 finale of Rick and Morty, After turning himself into the Galactic Federation so his family can return to Earth in peace, an inmate asks this question to Rick. He replies, in a defeated tone, "Everything."
- If you do get asked this in jail, it is generally advised to answer truthfully, since if you avoid answering you may be suspected of child molestation. And then, well... Although in most American prisons, it is generally considered more polite to phrase the question as "What are you accused of?" While either is acceptable, one should never ask the question "What did you do?" as it implies guilt.
- This has been made much worse by universal access to computers and the rise of social media. It used to be possible (if unlikely) for someone to successfully hide their criminal history. These days, it takes five minutes for an inmate's girlfriend/sibling/friend to look up court records, and prisoners will learn what each other did.