digital collage of a bed with yellow and white sheets. different types of unbranded candy falls from the top left corner to the pillows. in the background, a mint green block covers the left half, with darker green bars cutting at a diagonal from the bottom left to the top right corners, with small stripes of mint green between them like prison bars
Designed by Lara Witt

CW: this article mentions sexual assault in prison

Dear Reader,

I stepped foot into prison armed with only my wits, an overwhelming desire to make it back out, and the knowledge that I was utterly alone. Mommy and Daddy could not do my time with me. They had their own lives to lead. A sad reality I have noticed after 18 years of a 25-year prison sentence is that nearly everyone I have met behind the fence has been poor, our families don’t have a clue about what goes on inside prison, and none of us can afford to waste an iota of time we spend locked away.

In “Never eat the candy on your pillow,” I will guide you through the ins and outs of prison survival and provide you with a commonsense approach to the many obstacles one might encounter in the darkness of incarceration. As we say in the joint: Learn to always keep one eye open because “you never want to get caught sleeping.” Spoiler alert: Prison can be a nightmare. 

The idea for this column came about after hearing a young inmate’s horror story about being forced to perform unspeakable acts after trusting the wrong individual. I knew exactly how it would end, having seen countless situations over the years. The following is about one of the situations individuals might encounter in prison and how such horror stories occur. Consider this lesson one of our journey together through the prison gates and into the darkness. 

Prison nicknames often make little sense. Who in their right mind wants to be called Seabiscuit, especially in prison? Over the years, I have met a Muffin, a Muffintop, a freckled man named Sprinkles, a La-La or two, a Lady, Star, Stuff, “Actttion” Lips (not a typo, he actually spelled it that way), a Tink-Tink, several by the name of Sasha Fierce, one Pikachu, a Fiff, a slew of men who only answered to Chief, a huge linebacker-built gentleman named Lil Bit, and, last but definitely not least, a guy called Sniff. 

When I first met Sniff, I met the man, not the rumors surrounding him. The first thing I noticed about him was how quiet he was. In prison, it’s hard to find people who appreciate quiet. Sniff strolled over to the picnic table where I sat enjoying the sunrise and took a seat beside me. My first instinct was to move elsewhere. Confinement makes introverts of us all. Imagine being herded into a complex designed to hold 400 people that contained triple that amount—then throw in a lack of privacy, bad breath, terrible hygiene, and a side dish of lunacy. You get the idea. 

However, Sniff wasn’t a mouth breather or a fondler, so I remained sitting with him. I didn’t like being touched, and, for some odd reason, there were a lot of hands-on individuals behind the fence. Sniff just sat and stared out beyond the fence. I liked that. The next few minutes passed in pleasant contemplation, him looking out at the cows in the field and seeing whatever it is that he saw and myself enjoying the colorful sunrise display of pinks, purples, and oranges that reminded me of my mother’s Easter tablecloths. 

I found myself thinking this Sniff character might not be that bad of a guy. Anyone who could go for more than five minutes without trying to strike up a conversation—or filling the silence by beating a table top, humming to themselves, or whistling old sitcom melodies out of tune—was my type of people. Then, he turned to look at me. 

“Here it comes,” I remember thinking. In here, it’s not too hard to find a reason to dislike someone. All it takes is an unanswered phone call or letter, an empty locker, or someone’s snoring keeping you up half the night. I was having a trifecta of a morning. I woke up to someone else’s hair all over me and my coffee cup because my yeti of a bunkie shedded like an animal, and I was also rudely awakened from my dream of standing in the meat aisle at Walmart by the yeti’s freight train snoring. All of this had me not so much the happy inmate. Not so much at all. 

“My name is Smith,” he said. Only it sounded like Sniff, on account of his lisp.

“Trumbo,” I said. 

People use last names or nicknames in this place. Very rarely do you hear someone’s first name used. A person had to know me really, really well to greet me with a, “What’s up, Derek?” 

Smith nodded and turned back to looking out beyond the fence line. My type of people.   

Later that morning, a man named Thomas offered me a piece of advice. 

“Dude, you were sitting with Sniff outside? He’s not right. Watch yourself.” 

“Good looking out,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.” 

“Sniff’s trouble.” 

“I heard you the first time.” 

“You didn’t hear this from me,” Thomas said, pausing to let the words sink in. “That ignorant yap found a candy bar on his pillow. He ate it. Everyone knows you NEVER eat the candy on your pillow. He’s had nothing but problems ever since. I just thought you should know.” 

I bumped fists with Thomas and headed back to my bunk. On my pillow was a sucker. The kind with gum inside. I looked back at Thomas. He’d seen it too. 

Moments later, Smith came bumming a cup of coffee. 

“You got a cup to spare?” 

I grabbed Smith by the arm, waved the sucker in his face, and led him outside so we could speak in private. Before I said a word, the man began to cry. 

“I’m sorry,” Smith stuttered. “I didn’t know he’d try you too.” 

“Who? Who did it?”

“Brixler,” he said. “It’s a sex game. Don’t, don’t eat it.” 

When I returned to my bunk, the sucker was still there. I knew who Brixler was, and I visited his bunk to confront him. 

“Here’s your sucker back. I don’t play those games.” 

Brixler was the dorm’s “heavy,” a man many feared. I wasn’t having any of that. I just wanted to be left alone. To me, he was just another big guy who used his size to intimidate others. He took the sucker back, peeled off the wrapper, and put the sucker in his mouth. 

The next day, there was another sucker on my pillow and a note: “I don’t care if you don’t play games. I do.” 

I stewed on the situation for hours. Did I really want to take on the dorm’s heavy? Could I beat him up, if it came to that? I would have to if I wanted to make it through another day without looking weak. Weakness drew wolves in here as sure as new folks drew suspicion. I went in search of Smith. I would have to find out what Brixler’s game really was to know whether it was worth potentially having to put a can of soup in a net bag and swing for the fences. 

I found Smith sitting alone on the bleachers. He apologized the moment he saw me. 

“Don’t apologize. Just tell me what he did to you. All of it,” I said.

“All of it?” 

Smith’s story was unsettling. Sexual assaults in prison take place every day, and very few people speak on the subject for fear of being labeled a rat or snitch. 

“I told you how I ate the candy bar he left on my pillow? Well, he wanted it back. When I told him I ate it, he said I owed him. He came into the shower while I was in there. It just got worse from there. I didn’t know he’d start messing with you. Maybe he’ll leave me alone now.” 

People walked by, some looked our way. Others paid us no mind. A frisbee skidded across the pavement, and a group of guys tossed softballs to each other on the field. I wanted to be mad at Smith. I felt like screaming at him. Maybe even punching him in the face for bringing trouble my way. Instead, I sat with him, neither of us saying anything for a few moments. 

“I was lonely. I just wanted a friend. I … I thought somebody was being nice to me,” he said. 

I patted Smith on the arm and left to face Brixler. 

The first thing I did was push Brixler. 

“It’s over! No more games! It is what it is. You want to go? We can go.” I lifted my fists and stood my ground. 

Brixler’s eyes rounded. Suddenly I noticed Smith standing by my side, hands up too. 

“What y’all gonna do, jump me?” Brixler said. 

“Give them a break, man,” Thomas said from across the room. “You had your fun, now let it go.” 

“Shut up, Thomas!” Brixler spat. 

“You shut up,” Thomas said, low and serious. Sometimes a whisper cuts deeper than a blade. 

Brixler laughed. “Can’t anyone take a joke around here?”

A week passed, and Smith found himself a few new friends. Brixler moved to another dorm, and no one else found any candy on their pillows, at least as far as I heard. Everyone started calling Smith by his first name, and he seemed to like it. At least folks were speaking to him now. 

Prison can be a nightmare, but it doesn’t always have to be.

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

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...