digital collage with a light turquoise background. a dark tan hand with dark brown splotches reaches towards a branch holding three acorns hanging down
(Designed by Rikki Li)

Dear Reader,

Prison is a world apart from anything most people know or understand. It often takes weeks for a prisoner to orient themselves, months for them to settle into a routine, and years for them to comprehend the impact prison will have on their lives. 

In my early days of imprisonment, I learned that pain was inevitable. Misery, however, was but one option in my ability to grow beyond the injuries I inflicted—and I had a lot of growing to do.

I was reminded of the trauma I caused whenever I saw my face in any reflective surface. Prison is filled with reflections, and it is through these mirrors that people can truly begin to observe themselves. 

“Peep this,” Thomas said while sitting down across from me in the chow hall. “I told you about the chick I’m writing. I showed you her picture yesterday. Remember?”

I yawned. It was 5 in the morning. I hated prison almost as much as I hated having to wake up at the butt crack of dawn so I didn’t starve until noon. I grunted at Thomas. I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

“Well, she likened me to an acorn. She said that right now, in prison, I’m an acorn. She’s totally cool with that. Because, one day, a mighty oak will stand in my place. First, I’ll have to encounter a lot of growth before I can reach the sky,” Thomas said. “Trumbo, man, she’s the sky. You get that, right?”

My reflection in the table’s shiny silver surface nodded its head. The sound of a scuffle made me look up. Two men were arguing and shoving one another. Something about one guy reaching over the other guy’s tray to get a carton of milk from someone. I proceeded to shovel cereal into my mouth as quickly as I could swallow, and so did Thomas. We both knew what was coming next.

The scuffle quickly escalated into a gang fight.

“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see,” Thomas explained back in our dorm. “Always remember that there are levels to this shit. The guy smiling in your face might be planning to piss up your back.”

I frowned and wondered where the fuck the man got his quotes from. The fight in the kitchen that turned into a gang war had actually been a calculated scheme that had nothing to do with milk. Several days prior, one of the gang’s leaders got himself into a bit of trouble. The prison’s administration had the man locked up and tossed into The Hole—otherwise known as administrative segregation—and now he wanted out.

“The Hole can only hold so many people,” Thomas said. “So, the plan is to flood it with so many inmates that the Brass won’t have a choice but to let the top guy out.”

The highest-ranking prison officials all got called “Brass” because of their shiny gold badges. As the day turned into evening, it was clear the Brass were pissed. Fights were happening everywhere—even after the yard was locked down, and no one could even go to the chow hall unless under the strict supervision of officers. Still, the fights continued.

“This is what happens in open wings,” Thomas said. “Open wings aren’t like cells. At least in cells, the Brass can lock everyone in. Out in the open like this, where’s there to go?”

Our open wing resembled army barracks: wide open and crammed to overflowing with people. When one of us got sick, we all got sick. Any drama between two or more people became everyone’s business and would then be speculated on until something else more interesting happened, such as another fight. This latest fight, like many fights here, was about disrespect for prison etiquette.

“Rob, bruh! You can’t be serious! I’m eating here, and you just shit in my face!”

“My bad. I had to fart. How the hell was I supposed to know you were eating?”

Darryl slung the bowl of ramen noodles he’d been eating directly into his bunkie’s face. “Bitch, all you ever do is fart! Funky son-of-a-bitch!”

Since everyone is wedged in together like slaves in the hull of a slaver’s ship, disputes in prison can be flared up by anything—especially passing gas while someone’s eating.

Rob sat up on the top bunk, stunned, as ramen noodles and hot water ran down his face. 

“Darryl, what the—?”

Darryl snatched Rob down from the top bunk and dropped hammer-like fists upon the man’s face and chest. The fight went on for several minutes.

“Stop, please, man! Stop! I’ve had enough,” Rob begged.

Darryl was a gang member from West Louisville, Kentucky. As such, he had a reputation to uphold. 

“The next time you’re going to excuse your funky ass to the bathroom to do that trifling shit, ain’t you? I bet you won’t fart when a man’s eating again.”

The fight ended when Darryl ran out of breath after getting in a few more shots. He sat down on his rack and shook with rage. After a few minutes, Rob struggled to get up and needed help to get to the bathroom to clean himself up.

If you thought things ended there, you’d be mistaken. That’s not how prison works. Several minutes after the tension died down, Jason, a man who lived four bunks down from Darryl and Rob, naively answered a question about the fight. 

”What was that all about?” Don asked.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Jason said. “But it was stupid. Just stupid.”

Don then told Ritchie that Jason saw the fight and said “it was over stupid shit.” Ritchie told Hector. Hector told Connie. And Esau. And Lennie. Lennie went directly to Darryl. 

“I’m just telling you what I heard. Jason said it takes a real stupid type of fool to beat someone’s ass over breaking wind. He said he’d—”

“Yeah. I heard you the first time. He don’t even know me like that,” said Darryl.

In prison, it’s not wise to speak on things that have nothing to do with you. Darryl knew he couldn’t just take one man’s word for truth, so he asked around to find out if anyone else heard Jason talking about him. Having someone’s name in your mouth is a major no-no, and Darryl heard everything he needed to know. 

On the way to dinner, despite being under strict supervision, several more fights broke out. Back in the dorm, Darryl struck. Jason never saw it coming. 

Jason, a full head and shoulders taller than Darryl, had just sat down on the toilet when Darryl entered and waited for the man to begin his business. The sound of water splashing spurred Darryl into action. He caught the bigger man off guard with a forceful kick to the face. The assault was swift, vicious, and meant to make a statement. Though violent and over-the-top, the people who witnessed the beating were unmoved. This sort of thing happened all the time. 

The Brass were given a heads up that there was a potential for things to blow up all over the yard, so officers were already more vigilant than usual. It didn’t take too long before several officers rushed in to break up the fight. Darryl was taken to The Hole, and Jason to medical.

Lennie was moved to Darryl’s old bed. Rob was wise enough to lie down in his bunk and keep his head and face covered so officers didn’t see how badly he was beaten. He kept his mouth shut and survived his ordeal without going to The Hole. Lennie and Rob got along just swell.

Jason, however, suffered a broken jaw. He took a ride to the hospital for surgery and briefly enjoyed the illusion of freedom. He couldn’t wait to tell everyone back inside just how pretty the nurses had been—even if he was speaking through the wire holding his jaw shut. As the prison van rolled through the gates, Jason looked up in the tower at the officer with a rifle slung over his shoulder. I wondered if Jason felt safe.

The first thing everyone notices as they step out of the prison van or bus is the presence of officers, guard towers, and razor wire. The nice, clean, up-to-date facilities that outside visitors see are but an illusion. Outsiders are rarely afforded a glimpse of what exists on the other side of the fence: the crowded holes and open wings, places where there is no privacy, space, or even an escape from others.

Here, it’s easy to forget that the inmates always outnumber the officers—a fact never more apparent than when all hell is breaking loose. This is only the first level of prison. An acorn must endure much before it becomes an oak.

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...