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Dear Reader,

In life, there comes a time when everything clicks together like the pieces of a child’s puzzle. It is the moment when you see every detail with perfect clarity, and the universe opens up to allow a small peek behind the curtain. For incarcerated individuals like myself, it is the moment when all drugs are out of your system, your excuses no longer ring true, or the shock of confinement has worn off and you realize exactly where you are. I alluded to my own moment of perfect clarity in my last column, which came as I sat in the prison’s visitation room with my parents after receiving my GED. I was elated, but my father was less than enthused. He pushed me to imagine what I could have achieved had I applied myself when I was free. 

My dad’s words are something I return to often in my thoughts. My father was the stoic type who rarely spoke. When he did, it was often devastating.

In some ways, I am picking up where I left off in last month’s column, but I’m also tackling the larger issue of prison education. In prison, education isn’t a matter of passing or failing. There’s a reason why the streets are called “the school of hard knocks,” and prison is considered a criminal’s graduate school. If a person doesn’t examine their life and make a change while inside the system, they may carry back outside all of the darkness that they mastered through years of imprisonment.

When my father chastised me for not doing more while I was free, I told him, “I’m doing it now—and that has to count for something.”

And let me tell you this: Prison doesn’t offer much in the way of positive encouragement or constructive criticism. For the most part, prison staff are too busy trying to maintain order and safety to focus on an imprisoned person’s educational needs. If I want an education, I have to actively pursue it.   

My father didn’t respond to me. He rarely did. Perhaps that’s why I hold onto the things he said as if they were precious gems.

As I mentioned in last month’s column, up to that point in my life, receiving my GED was my greatest accomplishment. To my father, it simply wasn’t a thing. It was nothing to celebrate. That shook me. After the visit, I sat in my bunk as my parents got back on the road, driving farther and farther away from me.

In that moment, I had an epiphany. My father was right. He told me to use my imagination. He told me to look back and reflect upon all of the things I could have done. So I did, if only to apply myself for once. What I saw was enough to make me cry. Every problem I’d caused, all of my mistakes, and all of the responsibility I’d shirked were a direct result of my inability to do the right thing. Shame set in. I thought of all the things I’d never considered worthy of pursuit. Why had I thought so little of myself?

Receiving my GED also left me in a bit of a pickle. Once I was released from my job assignment as a student, I’d be required to get another job if I wanted a paycheck. Back in 2006, being a student and being a janitor paid the same. Eighty cents a day. Twenty days a month. $16.00 per state pay cycle. Did I really want to go back to scrubbing toilets? Perhaps I could become a teacher’s aide?

The teacher who took a chance on me was a short, rotund woman with an easy smile and a love for reading. 

“Trumbo, I heard you were a writer,” she said. “You’re built like one. I’ll need you to help the guys work on their reading and writing skills.”

And so, I spent most of my time helping GED students tackle language arts. When I wasn’t doing that, I worked on my own writing projects. At the time, I considered myself an avid writer of graphic novels. 

One day, a student named Clark asked if he could read some of my work as I was helping him with an essay. 

“Sure,” I said. “Um, right now I’m working on a story about zombies based on Jewish mysticism.”

“No, I want to read that essay you wrote that everyone’s talking about.”

“What essay?”

“The one about the plastic bag,” Clark said. “The one Trent got to read.”

I didn’t even remember that I’d let Trent read my essay. I dug it out of my folder. 

After reading the piece several times, Clark said, “For me, prison is like filling up my plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’m the one who put it all there. Chicken, salad, mac and cheese, rolls, fish, chicken nuggets, brownies, cranberry sauce, and—”

“Please, I get the picture. You’re making me hungry,” I said.

“That’s what I’m getting at. Hunger. I’m in prison because I always wanted what I couldn’t have. I was starving as a kid, and I starved as an adult. So I got high. On food, on dope, on sex. I took what I wanted, consequences be damned.”

“How can you embrace that in your essay?” I asked. “What would your theme be?”

Clark scratched at his chin. 

“I guess I can write about never feeling satisfied.”

I shook my head.

“You may want to consider writing about your hunger. That’s what led you to prison, right?”

“Yeah. Three times. I’ve been here three times,” Clark said. “Hey, at least I’m trying to get my GED. Third time’s the charm.”

“That’s what they say,” I said.

“Who are they?” he asked. “I’ve always wondered that. What gives them the right to say a damn thing?”

“They,” I said, “are the ones who say everything. We’re the ones who listen.”

We both got a good laugh out of that, and the teacher warned us to quiet down. We were in a classroom after all.

“If you don’t mind my saying,” Clark said, “I think you’re wasting your time writing horror stories. I think you should be writing a guide about prison or something.”

“A guide about prison? Who’d ever read that?”

“Me. I had no clue what I was doing my first two times around,” Clark said. “There’s no instruction manual for this shit.”

A guide to prison. At the time, I felt cynical enough to think I’d never have enough to say about prison to write more than an essay or two. The biggest obstacle in my way was my self-doubt. I never expected anyone to read my horror stories, so there was no pressure to perform. I had no one to impress. Now, someone was asking me to actually explain what prison is like. 

What’s prison like? I wrote the following:

Break the law. Get a public defender who has more clients than he or she has the time to actually defend. Accept the bogus plea deal your overworked and underpaid public defender offers, just so you can get out of jail. Welcome to prison.

The truth is that prison sometimes becomes the lesser of two evils. Ask anyone who has ever spent a few hours in an overcrowded jail cell—one that reeks of urine, sweat, and feces—if there is any place they would rather be. See what their answer is. Then ask again a few weeks later, months later, years later, and see what sort of craziness they’d accept in exchange for a way out.   

Most of the people I’d met in prison would sell their souls and tell on their own mothers just for a breath of fresh air. There’s a reason some animals gnaw off their own limbs to escape a trap. That’s what jail and prison are: a trap. 

Clark’s suggestion got me to thinking: Why had my essay resonated with the people? I spent the remainder of the class brainstorming and taking notes from my observations of the people around me in the prison yard. Then, I moved on to asking questions and interviewing anyone who’d give me the time of day. I asked everyone what they’d like to see in a guide about prison. 

“The truth,” was everyone’s response. The truth was what everyone wanted me to share with the world outside the fences.

“Tell everyone that even though we’re not all animals, some of the guys here are. Only it’s not their fault. Not really,” said Clark, who was pleased I’d taken his advice seriously. 

I jotted down what he had to say. 

“For some of us, prison was something we were born into,” Clark said. “Both of my parents did prison time. When I came in that first and second time, I didn’t think I had a problem at all. I still don’t know how to fix the things I’ve broken or right all my wrongs—and this place sure as hell isn’t gonna show me. But I’m here, and if all prison has to offer me is my GED, it’ll have to suffice.”

With all this information, where would I even start? I began with a list of the crucial parts of my own prison education—things I learned “the hard way.” Unfortunately, this is how many incarcerated people have had to learn, and these are the lessons I’m now sharing with you.

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...