Derek R. Trumbo, Sr. human rights Incarceration

Never Eat the Candy on Your Pillow: This Is What Prison is Like

Incarceration causes total and absolute loss—it is the absence of freedoms that compound punishment. Prison is the ultimate deprivation.
Designed by Rikki Li via Prism

By Derek R. Trumbo, Sr. / Prism

Dear Reader,

I was a 10th grade dropout. Living in the streets makes it hard to be a good student. While in my first year of prison, I received my General Education Development (GED) diploma. It felt like my greatest ever accomplishment. Unfortunately, my father saw things differently.

“Imagine what you could’ve achieved had you only applied yourself when you were free,” my father said. “I only say it because it’s true, son.”

That truth—his truth—nearly destroyed me. He was correct. The truth hurts. It hurt me even more when I finally admitted that receiving my GED diploma wasn’t my greatest accomplishment. I was the one who had dropped out and gave up. I could have had my high school diploma. The truth was that I alone had been unmotivated to accept responsibility for my own education. I ran from the hard things. Now that I was in prison, I could no longer run from myself. All I had was time on my hands to ask myself the hard questions. Many incarcerated people grapple with the same question: How will I define my prison experience?

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The GED teacher said he couldn’t tell me what the test’s actual essay topics would be—all he could do was drill me with essay writing prompts until my fingers ached and my wrist was numb. One essay question in particular stuck with me: What does it mean to be an imprisoned person? 

This was my response: 

What is the impact of prison on a person’s senses? Does everything in an imprisoned person’s sight have a negative impact on their lives? Does every locked door instill a feeling of insecurity and captivity? What of the bars on every window? Is claustrophobia contagious? Does every loud noise, every slammed metal door, the constant barrage of boots stomping on concrete, fists slapping table tops, and every voice raised to its highest volume in an effort to be heard over the raucous levels of everyday prison life go unheard beyond the barrier of the prison’s fence line? Does every sensory input an imprisoned person experiences during confinement shape them for better or worse?

“Hey, Trumbo. Man, what does the teacher mean by this question? Am I supposed to write an essay about my day or what?” asked Trent, another student in the GED class.

“I think he’s asking you to talk about how prison makes you feel,” I said.

“It makes me feel like hurting people.”

“Is that all you can come up with?” I asked. “Prison doesn’t make you feel like that. You make yourself feel like that. Dig deeper. Express that anger. Why are you so angry?”

Trent narrowed his eyes when he was thinking. The man’s eyebrows scrunched together, and his forehead creased like leather car seats exposed to too much sunlight. 

“Prison doesn’t actually make me feel like that,” he said. “You’re right. I’m angry because it’s the dumbasses I’m surrounded by in here that make me want to hurt them. That’s why I’m in prison in the first place. I don’t like dumbasses.”

“Nah. I think you’re taking the easy way out,” I said. “Think about the dumbasses and why you think they’re dumb. Ask yourself why they make you angry. What can you do about it?”

Trent bit down on his pencil and contemplated the words on the blackboard. I stared down at the blank page of my notebook and pondered my own answer to another question on the board: What is prison like?

This essay question also haunted me. It was only four words, but it might as well have been the world’s hardest trigonometry equation. 

A concise, snarky answer would be “hell.” I could write, “Prison is hell.” The only thing missing is the little red guy with the pitchfork. Any imprisoned person who’s stayed up late can tell you that, if you listen closely enough at night, you can hear the sound of people being tortured by their demons—every moan, cry, and whimper. 

But that answer seems too simple, right? “Hell” doesn’t seem an adequate enough description of imprisonment. Does it?

“Trumbo, I think I’m going to write about the guy who wakes up every morning at 4 and how he spends the next 20 minutes sounding like he’s dying as he gags and coughs as he clears his sinuses and brushes his teeth. That idiot really fires me up,” Trent said.

I had no idea how that related to what prison was like, but it was Trent’s essay. 

“At least you traded the word ‘dumbass’ for ‘idiot.’ See, you’re already doing the work.”

“Prison is like that idiot’s snorting and hacking—and I know what you’re thinking. How is prison like a hack and cough? Because it’s hard to get out of your system,” he said.

“OK.” I smiled, just a tiny bit.

“You don’t think it’s good enough, but that’s my answer,” Trent said.

“Write into that metaphor, my friend. Get it all out of your system,” I said.  

Unless you have actually experienced imprisonment, Trent’s answer wouldn’t make much sense. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “sense” as “a meaning conveyed or intended,” and as “the faculty of perceiving by means of sense organs,” including the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Therefore, a better way to ask the question would be to seek an actual description of a person’s imprisonment. Not, “What is prison like?,” But rather, “Describe the prison that confines you.” The problem with that question is that there’s no easy answer.

Consider this, dear reader: What would the sudden loss of one of your five senses be like?

How would the onset of a total loss of that sense affect you? 

This is what prison does to people. Prison deprives people of everything they once knew. Some would argue that such a comparison is more of an equivocation. But consider one reality of imprisonment: solitary confinement. This form of punishment completely deprives a person of human contact. Yes, the person still retains their five senses, but what does that individual truly sense, experience, or take in?

What would happen if all the world’s plants were to suddenly disappear? Every rose, tulip, hibiscus, shrub, tree, and everything in between? Of course we’d retain the mental image of what an orchid looked like, but the actual orchid itself would be no more. Like the imprisoned person’s freedom, only the memory of an orchid’s scent could be recalled. Now imagine an individual in solitary confinement. Put yourself in the mind of a person serving a life sentence. Prison denies these individuals all access to the world’s treasure trove of plants, roses, tulips, hibiscus, and orchids. Imagine never seeing dew running down the petals of a rose ever again. What would that be like?

People impacted by mass incarceration are deprived of life’s pleasures, freedoms, and liberties. Prison and imprisonment cause total and absolute loss—and it is the absence of these freedoms that compounds punishment. Prison is the ultimate deprivation. 

This loss of senses describes an imprisoned person’s reality. Our days of waking up in our own bed, surrounded by family, friends, children, and pets, or of being able to freely make our own decisions, are stripped away. Lost, gone—sometimes forever.

What is prison like? It’s like having two arms that work perfectly fine but will never again know the embrace of a hug. Prison is the feeling of being totally surrounded and the certainty that you are absolutely alone.

I put my pen to the page and let my thoughts flow, calling my response: “The Prison That Confines Me.” 

It’s been over 18 years since I’ve shopped in a store. Eighteen years since I’ve held a plastic grocery bag in my hands. Eighteen years since I’ve heard the crinkle of the bag’s plastic. Today I saw a plastic grocery bag floating on the breeze outside the prison fence. My breath caught in my throat. I exhaled. I allowed myself to float on the breeze, as free as the bag.

I cannot visualize the air, the gust of wind, the breeze. I’ll describe it to the best of my ability. Forgive me my purple prose.

The plastic bag floats on a shapeless, invisible, commonly forgotten entity that only a moment ago meant nothing to me. The breeze. Nothing, that is, until it lifted a blue plastic bag up and held it aloft for my eyes to see. So high up, up, up. Ever so high. So high, that all I could do was stare in awe. In wonder. Until I stood confounded by the sight.

Outside the fence, up in the air, the blue plastic bag took on a shape. It became seen. It made its presence known.

As the blue plastic bag expanded like a hot air balloon and rode the currents, I smiled like a kid. 

As the blue plastic bag surfed the slipstream, I found myself no longer confined. I was whirling, twirling, traipsing through an ever-expansive sky, like a child’s tiny dancer to its own melody.

Did you see it? I did.

Then the blue plastic bag was out of sight. Lost to my eyes. 

Only the razor wire fence remained.

This is what prison is like.

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Derek R. Trumbo, Sr.

Derek R. Trumbo, Sr., a multiple-time PEN Prison Writing Award winner, is an essayist, playwright, and author whose writing has been featured in “The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison” (Haymarket Books, January 2022), Vera Institute of Justice’s the “Human Toll of Jail” project, and Tacenda Literary Magazine. His plans have won or placed Top 3 at the Kentucky Theatre Association Roots of the Bluegrass New Plays Festival three years running. A Madeline L’Engle/Rahman Mentorship Award prize winning essayist, Derek mentors, instructs, and facilitates writing circles with his fellow inmates to create tales which highlight the human struggle and adversity of this gift we call life.

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