Dakota County guard cartoons jail life

Cartoonist Joe Engsesser
Cartoonist and Dakota County Corrections Deputy Joe Engesser's cartoon rendition of himself. Engesser pens a cartoon called 'Good Time Served.'
Courtesy of Joe Engsesser

Visitors to the Dakota County Sheriff's Web site might be surprised to come across a "humor" section, right above the inmate search tab.

But over the past two years, correctional deputy Joe Engesser has managed to combine his day job with his skills as a cartoonist, producing humorous one-panel sketches of daily life inside the Dakota County Jail, published on the sheriff's site.

"I don't know how many jailer cartoonists there are," he said.

The black-and-white drawings also appear in the sheriff's newsletter under the title "Good Time Served," and depict inmates and deputies interacting and telling jokes.

And while the cartoons show both sides occasionally expressing frustration, the overall tone is lighthearted -- no physical fights, no solitary confinement, no bars on the cells.

In one cartoon, an inmate gestures to a deputy, and says, "Gang sign? Chill...I'm just wavin' hello."

In another, an inmate reviews some paperwork, while a deputy comments on his sentence: "Only 7 years? I have to serve 12 more 'til retirement."

Engesser, 42, spends his 12-hour shifts in a locked indoor "day area," where he supervises up to 60 inmates at a time. "I have a perfect spot to sit and watch all this stuff unfold every day that I work," he said.

Joe Engesser
Dakota County Corrections Deputy Joe Engesser's is a cartoonist who writes and draws "Good Time Served."
Image Courtesy of Joe Engesser

He takes notes on ripped off sheets of paper, Post-it notes, or anything else he has around. "My studio desk is kind of scattered with all these Post-it notes or ripped off sheets of paper with little jottings on them," he said.

Engesser even turned down a promotion so that he could remain in the jail, interacting with inmates, and getting ideas for his cartoons.

The cartooning comes naturally. He started drawing comics in fourth grade when he discovered Charles Schultz. "I fell in love with that right away," he said.

He graduated from Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa with an associate's degree in commercial art, but struggled to find work. He sold a few cartoons to magazines and trade journals, but ended up in the Twin Cities working as a security guard.

The job, Engesser said, "really didn't have a whole lot to do with art." But he kept drawing anyway. A cartoon of a security guard bundled up outside in the middle of winter ended up in his company's newsletter.

Joe Engesser's "Good Time Served" -- Title: Retirement
Courtesy of Joe Engesser

At his second security job, at West Publishing Company in Eagan, he drew simple sketches for the company's legal textbooks, in between patrolling the grounds.

"I've always kind of drawn wherever I've gone," he said. "I always say cartooning is really my career. Everything else just kind of enhances it."

A few years after Engesser landed his current job as a correctional deputy; he started drawing caricatures of retiring co-workers and taped them up on the break room walls. Then one day, the janitor brought in some picture frames.

"They actually framed them," Engesser said. "I was pleased with that. That was kind of neat."

Engesser said he soon realized that his job provided unlimited fodder for a cartoonist.

"Pepper Spray"
Joe Engesser's "Good Time Served" -- Title: Pepper Spray
Courtesy of Joe Engesser

One day, several inmates built a small snowman during outdoor rec. Engesser used the small story as inspiration for one of his favorite cartoons -- featuring a snowman outside with his arms spread out against the jail's brick wall. One deputy tells another, "They built it during outdoor rec."

"I still laugh when I think about it because I like that one," he said.

Sometimes Engesser ends up in his own cartoons. One weekend, he came across a group of inmates watching the TV show "COPS," in violation of the jail's television rules.

Engesser told them, "I don't think this is considered educational programming." In the cartoon version, Engesser is the deputy, holding his flashlight.

Although the inmates don't receive copies of the sheriff's newsletter, many of them know that their corrections deputy is also a cartoonist. Some have seen his drawings online.

"Outdoor Rec"
Joe Engesser's "Good Time Served" -- Title: Outdoor Rec
Courtesy of Joe Engesser

When he overhears a good story, he isn't shy about writing it down. "I've told inmates, 'I'm going to turn that into a cartoon,'" he said.

Engesser readily admits that "it's not a tea party or a walk through the park all the time," but said that his cartoons show the other side of jail life.

The response from inmates has been mostly positive, he said. A few inmates have e-mailed him after they left to thank him for lightening the mood and breaking down some of the barriers between staff and inmates.

Engesser recalled his experience with one inmate, who stumbled across his cartoons while looking at the sheriff's Web site with his mother before turning himself in.

"He said, 'You know, I was pretty anxious and pretty nervous about coming in. My mom and I both looked at your cartoons and we were laughing. It kind of made me feel better about coming in,'" he said.

"Gang Sign"
Joe Engesser's "Good Time Served" -- Title: Gang Sign
Courtesy of Joe Engesser

Engesser said the inmate's experience confirmed his approach to cartooning. "My cartoons aren't meant to be judgmental really one way or the other. And that's I think what makes them kind of unique."

Over the years, Engesser has managed to get cartoons published in Better Homes and Gardens, the Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. He also has a cartoon on display at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, memorializing his childhood hero.

He draws from his studio inside the Red Wing home he shares with his wife and three boys, overlooking the bluffs.

Blair Anderson, Dakota County's commander for detention services, said he never expected to find a cartoonist working in the jail.

"I would say it was weird, but we've gotten used to it now, to have somebody that's that talented kind of in our midst," Anderson said.

Anderson said Engesser has no shortage of material.

"You cannot make up the stuff that goes on here," Anderson said. "It seems like he gets a lot of the inspiration from being here, and perhaps that's a coping mechanism for him."

A few months ago, Engesser sent out packets of his cartoons to a dozen syndication services. He's still waiting to hear back from several, and hopes that his jail cartoons will find a larger audience.

He acknowledges that some people might not believe that humor could exist behind locked doors, but he doesn't plan to change his approach.

"If I wanted to take it in a whole different direction, I could get brash or do something edgy or something that was a little more controversial, but I really don't want to do that," he said. "I don't really think it's my place to do it."

And he can't imagine switching to another topic.

"My cartoons mainly deal with the jail because that's what I know," Engesser said. "I think someone said once that you've got to write what you know, or draw what you know."