digital collage on a teal background of an illustrated black man with a mustache and circle beard. behind him is a set of thin black lines in a grid pattern. the outlines of white flying birds moving from the bottom right to the top left are overlaid on top of the man
Designed by Rikki Li

Dear Reader,

If there is anything more detested in prison than handcuffs, the resounding echo of a gavel strike and the word “guilty,” or the harsh clang of a gate slammed shut, it’s false hope. 

I still recall my mother chiding me: “Son, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and excuses for why you never followed through.”

“Mama, I promise I’ll follow through this time,” I’d say.

“Just make sure that you do. I’m depending on you.”

She never stopped believing in me. No matter how many times I lied or let her down.

No one ever intends to find themselves lost within the criminal justice system. No one can hold onto things they feel unworthy of—things like dreams, prayers, forgiveness, and hope. Everyone intends to do their best—to keep their head up and never lose faith while confined inside a prison cell often forged from their own mistakes. 

No one ever intends to come to prison, but many of us find ourselves here anyway. In this column, I want to talk to you about the strange phenomenon many of us experience in prison: how we develop expectations, believe in promises, and pass on hopeful things we’ve heard, even when nothing actually pans out.

I can still recall an article I read in 2006 about a proposed bill that would change sentencing guidelines to reduce mandatory minimums for violent convictions from 85% time served to 50%. It felt like a shimmering gleam of hope in my dismal world of incarceration. I walked into prison with 25 years to serve, which meant I would have to do, at minimum, 21 years and three months to satisfy my sentence. If the bill passed, I could be free after serving just 12 years and six months. The bill would change my life. It would mean upon release, I’d still have my youth and—more importantly—my health. I could have more time to live free. I could begin again and enjoy life. I could hope for something better than waking up inside prison.

This was back when I first walked into prison. Back when I still believed everything I heard.

“Hey, come read this,” I said, excited by the words on the page and unable to fully accept them. I had to be reading it wrong or taking it out of context, I thought. “Thomas, tell me this says what I think it says.”

“Seriously? I’m trying to catch this dude as soon as he walks through the door,” Thomas said.

For several days, Thomas had been trying to corner a man who owed him money. The only time the man ever left his dorm was to come to the library.

“It’s talking about dropping the 85% to 50%,” I said.

“Bullshit,” Thomas said, snatching the paper from my hands. “Let me see.”

I pointed to the article on the page.

“You must’ve been reading it wrong. The commonwealth would never cut us a break. There’s too much money in prisons, and the politicians have to keep the bad guys locked away if they want to keep getting elected.”

I bit my tongue. Just read it, I thought.

“The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, blah, blah, blah,” Thomas read on. “No way. No way in hell. Nah. There has to be a misprint.”

“It says what it says.”

“It can’t say what it says, though.”

Thomas sat down, all thoughts of the man he’d been waiting on—and the money he was owed—forgotten as he reread something that could potentially change our lives forever.

“It does say that the laws will be changing. Does it not?” I said.

“It’s almost like someone out there might give a damn, Trumbo. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Thomas handed the paper back to me and walked out of the prison library to share the message of what we read. In no time at all, the word spread across the yard, and inmates came to the library in droves to check out the article for themselves. 

Years into my sentence, folks still read the same news article in the same newspaper. The bill was put forth over several legislative cycles by the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA). The problem was that the  bill was based on logic in an illogical world. What makes sense to the tens of thousands of incarcerated people in Kentucky prisons—and to the brave lawyers at the DPA—made absolutely no sense to the people who pass laws. Yet, the DPA still attempted to change the state’s flawed criminal justice system. The DPA threw out its pitch, and incarcerated people who read about the effort were given the same gleam of hope I’d once found. Year in and year out, the story was read by thousands of people looking for change. Folks didn’t know it for the lie that it was. 

But there is a grain of truth to every lie. The truth is that the DPA submitted a proposal multiple times to the state legislature with the request to change Kentucky’s sentencing guidelines. Such a change would decrease the burden on the state’s already overcrowded prison facilities and clear away decades-long court cases. Many of the cases clogging the state’s courts are from imprisoned people who are seeking relief from extremely long prison sentences. The DPA, the courts, and the inmates would all benefit from a radical shift away from draconian sentencing laws. The change would have a tremendous impact on the DPA’s workload and make their jobs easier. Changing the law would also free many people who have wasted away in prison for years waiting for their 85% date to roll around. It’d be a win-win for everyone.

Sadly, the proposals never passed, and nothing ever changed. Yet, each year a new proposal was submitted, the same article proposing the same hopeful measure got read by someone like me, an imprisoned person with years to face. They’d yell, “They’re changing the 85% laws to 50%!” Word spread again, and everyone waited for something to change.

The proof of the bill’s failure can be read in every new line and wrinkle I glimpse in the mirror, at every new gray hair that fills my head.

I am proud to say that I still hold out hope for change, but I no longer allow that hope to affect me. Laws take time to go into effect, and by the time such a law goes into effect, I will have already served my complete sentence. As of now, I have served over 17 years. In about another year, I will be eligible for parole—just long enough for new proposals to make the rounds, possibly be approved, and then go on the waiting list to be enacted. It wouldn’t free me any sooner, but it would help a lot of my fellow imprisoned people and give many a second chance. 

Although I have personally witnessed the years pass by with no change at all in the state’s sentencing guidelines, I still have hope. Perhaps that’s why the newspaper ran the same article for each proposal: to keep hope alive. To remind us that, though we feel like we are out of sight and out of mind to many people, they did not forget us. Incarceration is supposed to be about rehabilitation, not warehousing.

Years ago, a young inmate named Justin held out the newest issue of the newspaper I’d come to know so well over the years. 

“Hey Trumbo, do you think they’ll really do it?” Justin asked.

“Here’s a better question,” I said as I glanced over the DPA’s newest attempt to fix what no one else seemed to care about. “What would you do if they did?”

“I’d get out and have a steak dinner. Order a beer and probably track down my ex-old lady. You know, make up for lost time.”

“So, in other words, you’d be on your way right back here,” I said.

“I don’t know about all that,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I could scooch by. What the system don’t know won’t hurt them. I ain’t coming back for nothing or nobody.”

The conversation ended the way these kinds of conversations usually do: with Justin daydreaming about food, wine, and women—everything he’s denied in prison. The rumor mill fed yet another helping of hope. 

A few years ago, Justin and I looked on as the article made the rounds yet again. I asked him if he still wanted that steak dinner, beer, and his ex-old lady.

“I still want the steak. Couldn’t care less about the beer because, I mean, after all of this time, you know, it’s not the same. I’m not the same. Even my ex-old lady might not be the same. I don’t know if she looks the same or has kids. Things change.”

False hope is a lie, but having no hope at all amounts to being dead. The world’s changing every day. Given enough time, perhaps people can change too.

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...