This article was published in collaboration with Vice
Those conversations you overhear in the coffee shops and at the water coolers? I overhear them on the tiers and at the guards’ station. Everyone is talking about the 2016 election, Hillary or Trump. Most black and brown prisoners are for her, most white guards are for him.
The day we heard Trump talking about groping women on a hot mic, a young Blood member yelled down the tier to one of his homies, “Yo… this dude Trump is outta line! Trump sounds like a straight-up creep.”
In prison, we have a social hierarchy, and rapists and child molesters are at the bottom. It’s one of the only things Attica guards and prisoners agree on. But while some prisoners thought Trump’s words were inappropriate, the guards I talked to didn’t.
“Come on Lennon, that was pure guy talk,” one said.
I don’t want my president to be a creep, though — I want his or her words to represent an ideal.
In June 2015, a hate-filled white boy shot and killed nine loving black folks attending a bible study in their church in Charleston, S.C. Afterwards, it was uncomfortable for me, a white boy in Attica. “Fuckin racist white mothafucka!” I heard tumble through cell bars, down the tier. “That’s the kind of hate these crackas up in here have.”
The tension was palpable in the days that followed. Then President Barack Obama went to Charleston and gave a moving speech, soothing America, singing “Amazing Grace.” We watched in our cells. I had tears in my eyes.
Attica guards dig that Trump proclaims himself the “law and order” candidate, because that’s the ol’ lock-em-up language — and that’s their livelihood. To a lot of guards, Trump’s words have resurrected the us-versus-them climate, validating the idea that things ain’t like they used to be. This comes at a time when Attica guards have had to show restraint because the historically hands-on prison has recently been fitted with cameras and mics after intense media scrutiny.
But most prisoners don’t want things to be like they used to be. Anthony “Jalil” Bottom, a former Black Panther who’s been behind bars for 45 years, is one of the New York Three convicted in 1975 of killing two cops — one white, one black. The Nixonian “law and order” era, Jalil said, was a shameful part of American history. Take the 1971 Attica uprising: President Nixon supported then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller when he sent armed federal and state authorities to take back the prison. That raid resulted in 39 people — 29 prisoners and 10 hostages — being shot dead.
“Make America Great Again, huh,” Jalil said, smiling. “Yeah, we remember those days — it was great for some people, not so great for others.”
And, I should add, there are a few guards who agree with him. “Hey Lennon, I think it is the law-and-order thing with these guys,” said a guard with kind eyes, whom I’ll call Mr. Smiley. He’s an anomaly. Recently, I suggested he should take the sergeant’s exam — we need more people in power like him. “I was for Bernie,” Smiley told me, “but now I’m undecided between Hillary Clinton and the Green Party. I’ll never vote for Trump.”
I asked him about another guard, one of the only black ones at Attica. He’s a nice guy who says hi to me when I see him in the corridors, which is very uncommon. “I know for a fact that he is not for Trump,” Smiley told me.
In 2006, I was in solitary in Upstate Correctional Facility, a prison built with federal grant money from the 1994 crime bill — also known as the Clinton crime bill. Most of Congress voted for it, then-Senator Joe Biden was the lead sponsor, and President Bill Clinton signed it. But because the bill also pulled Pell Grants for prisoners, 300-plus college programs that operated in prisons nationwide vanished.
Upstate prison was a shiny new hell. I arrived there a decade ago to do 90 days in solitary, and had another four months — 120 days — added for a minor infraction. There seemed to be a system in place to keep us in the hole, keep the beds filled. Around the same time, then-Senator Hillary Clinton toured the prison. She must have seen the hopeless eyes on faces plastered against plexiglass squares in the metal doors while walking the tiers. Perhaps it was then that she began to evolve on mass incarceration.
After I got out of solitary, I began to evolve, too. I landed a spot in a small creative writing workshop at Attica, voluntarily taught by an English professor, and then got into a community college program. But these privately funded programs are scarce. Last year, the Obama administration approved a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, which allows some prisoners to once again receive Pell Grants. It seems likely that a President Trump would scrap it.
My Blood neighbor, the one who called Trump a creep, came to prison when he was 19 years old. He’s 29 now, and getting out soon. This guy is part of prison’s lost generation — an uneducated have-not who’s languished for 10 years watching TV, bangin’ with his homies, blowing bud in the yard, and making a few pit stops in solitary.
The good news is he won’t be violating any women when he gets out — that’s just not his M.O.
“I love women,” he told me. “I’m a gangster and a gentleman.”
John J. Lennon is serving 28 years to life for second-degree murder at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Quartz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Hedgehog Review, and other publications.