Jurisprudence

Why Write About Life in Prison?

Because every story needs hope.

Derek Trumbo (left) acting a scene in the Voices Inside/Out Program
Derek Trumbo (left) acting a scene in the Voices Inside/Out Program. Photo courtesy of PEN America

This essay is excerpted from The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison, a recently released collection of essays from Haymarket Book and PEN America. Edited by PEN America’s Director of Prison and Justice Writing, Caits Meissner, the book weaves together insights from over 50 justice-involved contributors and their allies to offer inspiration and resources for creating a literary life in prison. 

It started out just another day in prison: I shuffled the deck for a game of spades. My opponents had either been cheating or were having one hell of a lucky streak. Or maybe I just sucked at stacking the deck. I was certain I’d gotten all the cards just where I’d wanted them, when everyone stopped talking, eyes wide.

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With my back to the window, I smelled the acrid stench of old insulation and smoldering cloth before turning toward the flames. Outside, grown men with faces covered in towels and T-shirts ran every which way. Prisoners were laying waste to the building’s weak points: the windows and doors. I’d later hear that some officers—fearing for their own safety—opened doors and stood back as their prisoners revolted in response to the warden’s lockdown orders. A billowy plume of smoke rose from where the chow hall used to be. A brick exploded against the metal grate barricading the window, and glass shards cascaded through the room. As my opponents rushed out into the chaos, the cards fell to the floor, the king of spades staring up.

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The entire prison began to riot.

The year was 2009. The aftermath was Kentucky’s costliest riot in history. A friend of mine asked if I could help him put the experience into words for his family. For the first time since my imprisonment, I sat down to capture the havoc and devastation on paper. With pen to paper, my words flowed like the tears I was too ashamed to cry.

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I’d never before been asked to describe the hell of prison. Why had I resisted depicting my environment for so long? I’d always wanted to be a creator of worlds, an author, an artist with words. Only somewhere along the way, I’d become convinced I wasn’t smart, educated, or articulate enough to say anything someone else would ever give a damn to hear. My dream of being an author was beat down by the poverty I was raised in, my inability to focus on my teachers, their lessons, and my grades, and eventually by the drug addiction I used to mask my
inadequacies.

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Three years into my incarceration, I was asked, “When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

It was then I decided to do something different. My pursuits turned to writing. I’d ask any and everyone for help. I’d finally dream. I’d change! But there was the nagging thought: Would anything I put down on the page make a difference? It was discomforting to not know where to begin, or what I wished to say.

Who was I as a writer? I found myself emulating all of my favorite authors in an attempt to locate my voice. But everything I wrote received the same critiques. Despite my imitation, I wasn’t making the progress I wanted. I still needed to work on my dialogue, characters, and plots. Discouraged, I stopped showing anyone my work. For a time, I stopped writing altogether.

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It was only after my success with the riot piece that I felt comfortable enough to want people to read my work again. I felt validated, even if only temporarily. By then, the piece had been published on prisonwriters.com, and now all I had to do was wait. Someone would recognize my greatness, I thought to myself. And someone did—just not in the way I’d imagined it.

The friend who I’d written the riot piece for signed me up to join a group from Pioneer Playhouse, a local theater bringing the arts to prison. I was less than thrilled. Though I had zero interest in acting or writing plays, the prison offered nothing else.

I took the risk and joined the Voices Inside program.

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“Write about what you know,” said the instructor. “Write from the gut.”

“I’m not writing about prison. Nobody gives a damn about prison,” I replied.

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As it turned out, though my prison riot piece had been published, aside from pats on the back from a few of my fellow inmates and a small fifteen-dollar payment for the article, no one else said a thing about it. I’d bled on the page, and no one seemed to care, or even notice. The other twenty inmates of the very first Voices Inside class all agreed—no one wanted to write about the hell we all woke up to every morning. Instead, we showed up with our knockoffs of popular sitcoms, SNL skits, and all too many thinly veiled retellings of Romeo and Juliet.

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The work was uninspired. The plays we would go on to write and perform in class all suffered greatly for our avoidance. With excuses of writer’s block, procrastination, and sheer refusal, we were lying to ourselves.

In attempting to tell stories—any stories—to avoid the topic of prison, we weren’t being true to our stories. I decided to set down the heavy sack of shame that I’d lugged around everywhere since my conviction. I wrote a new play in which I spoke of my own incarceration, not as something that had taken my life from me, but as something that had allowed me the time, separation, freedom to examine “my life.”

I wasn’t dead. None of us were. And though we’d all been stripped away from our families, our comforts, our routines and were confined to this “new normal,” our lives had not come to an end.

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My first prison play involved the very people I’d spend the next twenty-five years locked away from: my children. With myself as the protagonist, I used my children’s hypothetical questions, blame, and confusion over my absence as the antagonist to reveal every truth I’d once steered clear of. Ultimately, guilt and innocence aside, it was my own poor choices that had put me in a prison of my own making.

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I staged the play in the crowded classroom we used each week. Desks were moved aside to make an improvised auditorium with a few rows of plastic chairs. The play took place in the span of a visit with my now-grown children—strangers to me, with the names and once-familiar faces of the young people they’d been fifteen years before.

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I wrote them as tragic characters who’d missed out on the father who had never put down roots, never truly loved their mother, never even attempted to be the man his children needed him to be. In the play, my daughter, the eldest, arrived on the scene to confront me with her anger. How could I ever leave her alone with two small brothers and a drug addict for a mother? Had I been the one to put the pipe to her mother’s lips, the needle in her veins? Did I know about the overdoses? All the strange men who’d found their way into my daughter’s bedroom in the middle of the night? Did I know all of the pain my being incarcerated had caused? Was I happy? Did I know all of the terrible things my children had grown up hearing about me? Did I know?

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The man playing my daughter slapped me in the face with her last question before rushing offstage in tears. A voice from the audience called out: “Fucking go after her, man!” But the play ended with my character being restrained by an officer’s single hand.

Afterwards, I sat devastated and exposed. But as I glanced around the room, everyone’s resentment toward the man playing the officer was clear. I could feel them stewing on the same question. How do we begin to comfort the loved ones our decisions have taken us away from?

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“That child needed her father,” said the man beside me. “I hate prison,” he said, placing his own comforting hand on my shoulder. “That really happens.”

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Eleven years later, I still hear my fellow prisoners complain of having to share the details with those in their lives who know nothing about the realities of prison. No one wants to relive the grief of their incarceration. Ripping off scabs is painful. Their reticence is valid. I am patient. They have to find the courage on their own terms, within their own voices.

Why write about prison? Every story needs hope.

In our stories, we may have started out the murderers, rapists, thieves, and addicts, the monsters, the bad guys, the adversaries, the villains, the defendants, but prison does not have to be the end of our tale. If we don’t write our own endings, we hand our pens over to the legislators, owners of privatized prisons, and propagators of the lies behind mass incarceration.

I write about prison because there are more people in prisons in America than populate some small countries.

Because my experiences are the experiences of countless others. I write because there is truth in our stories that cannot, must not, be denied: the separation from our families, the toll on our loved ones, all the wasted time, the warehousing of our bodies, and our fruitless efforts
to prevail against a flawed reality of incarceration.

That is the story I dare everyone to acknowledge. And only people behind bars can tell it as it truly is.

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