Never eat the candy on your pillow: The setup

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the seventh installment of Never Eat the Candy on Your Pillow, which is now coming to you bi-weekly. Thank you for reading and for your kindness. There’s power in this community of ours, built by those who give consideration to marginalized voices such as my own. You are appreciated. 

This column is the result of lists of topics and notes I’ve collected over the years about my prison experience thus far. I sometimes question whether any of this matters. I know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But it was built by individuals who united for a common cause. Perhaps this guide is my very own Colosseum? A sort of tribute to the vast array of humanity before me, trapped behind the fences of criminal punishment. A way for our voices to be heard. After all, the world would never know of the people forced to face off with the lions if not for the historians who wrote of such entertainment.

One way for a writer like me to look at prison is having my very own front-row seat in the amphitheater. If my journey is to be a work in progress, if the goal of all of this is for me and fellow incarcerated people to work toward rehabilitation, how do we illustrate our progress and rehabilitation? More importantly, as I’ve devoted myself to this expeditionary trek called self-reform, how do I catalog my thoughts? Am I setting myself up for failure by trying to make sense of incarceration?

At times, my writing is the only thing that makes sense to me. Prison has yet to prove logical on any level. It’s not the people I’m surrounded by or the inconsistent rules or the oppressive atmosphere. It’s the circumstances that refute all logic. Prison is a setup. A deceptive scheme. A fraud and a hoax. The rules are illogical and inconsistent. Prisons dictate that in order for us to escape the crucible with our sanity intact, we must first be shaped by the grandly immense pressure of powerlessness.

Question: What is prison like?

Answer: The physical loss of freedoms. The act of being caged. Prison is all about the constants of concrete, metal bars, and razor wire. Prison is about either living in the moment or developing a long view of life. Imagine realizing that you’re no longer the individual gazing at yourself in the mirror, you’re just the reflection of a person. That is prison. Prison is isolation, though you’re never alone.

Not everyone who enters this place can avoid the pitfalls. Only a rare few know to look for and spot the setups.

From the outside looking in, a setup is easy to see. The banana peel on the floor. The valuable item carelessly left unattended. The too-good-to-be-true offer made to the vulnerable. From the outside looking in, prison is an obvious pitfall down onto unforgiving punji sticks.

However, most of us incarcerated find it hard to spot the setups when we’re set up to fall into the trap. It’s almost like dissociation occurs, like it’s not happening to us. It’s not real. None of it applies to us because we are physically and psychologically separated from everything. When all of your life is one huge trauma-induced event—a perpetual setup—the prison way of life may actually appear to be an escape from everything.

Prison can be an exploitation of epic proportions, or it can be a refuge for professional victims, bottom feeders, and manipulators. I’ve learned that’s just the way things are in here. Some in prison are content to be here, and others constantly test the boundaries.  

In certain circles, prison is a game, and, like pool hustlers, people work their angles and manipulate their environment until they are comfortable with being imprisoned. In prison, one setup to always avoid is the “Tough Guy.”

Take what happened to Al, for example. Al is young, white, and weighs more than 300 pounds. The only exercise he’s ever gotten was mowing the lawn or using the stairs. He’s new to prison. Al has never been set up before. Then along comes Hunter. Hunter earned his nickname. He can spot prey the moment they hit the yard. When Al meets Hunter at the water fountain, it’s a disaster.

“You ain’t bucking me!” Hunter said, shoving Al against the wall. 

“I wasn’t trying to,” Al explained. He didn’t even know the other man was waiting to get a drink. “I’m sorry.”

No amount of apology seemed to suffice. “Who is this guy?” Al asked himself. “What did I do?” Al’s fear and confusion were obvious, and Hunter fed on it and set out to hurt Al. When Al cried out, it drew the attention of people passing by. Al became the day’s entertainment until a passerby stepped in to help.

“Let him go, Hunter.”

Al was grateful for the help and didn’t expect to be rescued by a much smaller man named Tyler.

“Mind your own business, Tyler.”

“Let him go.”

Finally, Hunter set Al free.

“He’s only dangerous when his crew’s with him,” Tyler said, leading Al away.

If this little guy can get respect, maybe I can too, Al thought, thankful a crisis has been averted. Everything was fine until Al’s new friend Tyler wasn’t there when the bully Hunter reappeared with friends. Bigger, meaner, and more volatile friends. Now Al had a real problem on his hands: extortion.

“You owe me for making me look weak,” said Hunter, handing Al a list of items.

“What’s this?”

“That’s the price for you and Tyler to walk the yard this month. Pay it or else there’ll be pain.”

Al found a way to pay Hunter’s price. 

“Mom,” Al begged over the phone. “I need you to send me $20 a week. No, I can’t explain. It’s prison, mom. That’s all I can say. OK? I love you.”

Al got a little peace of mind, and Hunter went back on the prowl.

Al didn’t see Tyler again until he noticed him eating with Hunter as a member of his crew. Al realized then he’d have to learn how to stand on his own or risk another setup. 

“I was terrified and all alone,” Al said. “That’s why they targeted me. I was easy pickings.”

Unfortunately, prison is filled with setups. The good news is that surviving them makes a person much more appreciative of genuine community. That’s not impossible to build here. It just takes time—something we have plenty of.

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...