Search About Subscribe Donate
Life Inside

Notes From a Wild Election Week Behind Bars

“From time to time you hear someone shout something like, ‘Trump cannot be stopped!’ or, ‘Let’s get this White Nazi out of power!’ There is no gray area.”

Election Night: Eyes Glued to Cable News

Standing at their steel bars—rattling them—a group of White prisoners chant, "Four more years, four more years!" Convinced that Donald J. Trump will retain the presidency, they make jokes about how “Creepy Joe” actually thought he could win. The polls were wrong once again, they say.

We prisoners at Washington State Reformatory are getting our election night news in various ways. Some listen to reports on headphones in hopes of drowning out the madness taking place in person. But many have their TVs turned up for all to hear as they cheer for Trump or Biden. The three major cable news stations are in play: Fox News for all the Trump supporters, CNN and MSNBC for others. All of the stations seem to be polarized in one direction or another.

From time to time you hear someone shout something like, “Trump cannot be stopped!” or, “Let’s get this White Nazi out of power!” There is no gray area.

Most of the prisoners who loudly support Trump express White supremacist views. They claim that they support him because they care about the economy and rebuilding America, but when you get them talking about why we need immigrants removed from American soil or why a Southern border wall is so important, it’s clear why he’s their desired leader.

Many of us on the other side have spent the last four years listening to these individuals claim how amazing Trump is. We had hoped that tonight would be the night we sent Trump and his ideologies packing. But the final results aren’t in. We go to sleep on pins and needles. Like the rest of society, we have to be patient.

Day 2: Fraud Accusations and Dire Predictions

As the Trumpers learn that Joe Biden has a chance of becoming the next president, accusations spill out like vomit. They complain about how “all the extra ballots” are being wrongly used to propel Biden to victory. One pro-Trump prisoner yells, “Look, even the news is saying there were more ballots turned in than there are residents in Nevada! You see, there is proof the Democrats are cheating!” He encourages me to check Fox News if I don’t believe him.

Throughout the day words more heated than this fly around the prison. One prisoner who lives just above me screams, “Be warned now! Halfway through Biden’s term Americans will be begging for a leader like Mr. Trump to be back in office! Begging!”

I have often found myself arguing with these individuals. I have tried to get them to see that in Trump’s law-and-order-loving mind, they belong right where they are—behind countless feet of razor wire and mounds of brick and concrete.

It’s not just prisoners who support Trump. A group of guards have been known to wear MAGA masks in the prison. During a shift change, around five gather on the third-floor landing. A small White female guard remains optimistic that Trump will win. She tells her coworkers about a party she is planning to acknowledge his big victory. “We are in for some great years,” she says, eyes bright with excitement.

Day 3: Trolling the Trump Fans

As the tallies continue to roll in, we anti-Trump prisoners can’t resist taking shots at the rattled contingent of Trump followers. While walking out of the prison dining hall, I ask a guard where all the MAGA masks have gone. “We were told by the higher ups that they are not to be worn as they are racist,” he replies, as if he thinks his superiors are being ridiculous. He looks to me for validation. I just walk off feeling good about getting a shot in at one of my oppressors.

Later, as the night settles, many of us wonder if we will actually even see the end of this election.

Day 4: The Slow-Count Torture Continues

I turn on my TV as soon as I wake up. It’s clear that states are still counting ballots, but what catches my eye is the lead Biden has gained—four out of the six remaining states have him as their frontrunner.

As the day goes on, I strike up conversations about a Biden presidency. One prisoner known to be a social justice warrior says something that really sticks out: "I want Trump to win.”

Reading the disagreement on my face, he explains, “I hate Trump. But if he wins, people will continue to protest. If Biden wins, people will have a false hope that things are going to magically change, and they won’t. We have to keep the pressure on, or else people will continue to be abused by the system and those entrusted to positions of authority. Police will keep shooting unarmed Black people!"

I have to admit he has a point. It is quite possible that with a Biden win people could become complacent. However, I remind him that there are other areas that would suffer, like heath care for the elderly, abortion rights, immigration and those protected under DACA. I remind my friend that it’s on us to keep the conversation going.

Later I spend some time out in the prison yard walking around a track surrounded by razor wire and towering walls. A friend of Vietnamese descent tells me that he knows he will be deported upon his release from prison, as this has just recently happened to a friend of his.

He hasn’t been to Vietnam since he was 10, and he is now over 40. “I have no one over there; my family and two kids live here,” he says. “I pray every night Trump doesn’t win, because he will send me back, and I will be alone.” Even though there were plenty of felony deportations during the Obama administration, I do my best to reassure him that Biden will win.

Day 5: My Victory Song

On Saturday, a little before 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes seal the deal for Biden, and this exhausting week comes to an end.

In my loudest voice, I break out with, “Nah nah nah, nah/ Nah nah, nah, nah/ Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!” The sound vibrates off every wall and, to my surprise, others join in. We repeat this at least a dozen times, acquiring more voices with each chorus. It feels good to know that this is like nails on a chalkboard to the bigots who sought refuge in Trump. We’re excited to have a racist tyrant out of the White House. Most important is that we stood up to a bully, and those who choose to live through him are forced to hear us roar.

Postscript: One Small Step

Since the final results came in, I haven’t heard guards saying anything about the election. The young White female guard has failed to mention how her victory party went.

Jokes aside, I know that Joe Biden isn’t going to solve all of our problems. But sometimes all you can do is focus on the next step. And the next step for our country is to extract the racist who played a major role in dividing our country from the White House.

The number of Americans who voted for a fool like Trump after all that he has done is a clear reminder of just how far we need to go. But for now, I can rest assured that we have taken a small step toward rebuilding our country.

The Washington Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment by publication.

Christopher Blackwell, 39, is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by Jewish Currents, BuzzFeed, The Crime Report and several other outlets. He is serving a 45-year sentence for murder and robbery.

Before you go...

Can you help us make a difference?

The Marshall Project produces journalism that makes an impact. Our investigation into violence using police dogs prompted departments from Indiana to Louisiana to change their policies. Thousands of cameras were installed in the infamous Attica prison after we revealed the extent of violent abuse by guards. Municipalities stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration because of our reporting. Supreme Court justices have cited us, along with incarcerated people acting as their own lawyers.

The deeply reported and painstakingly edited investigations we produce take persistence, significant resources and, above all, time. That’s why we need your support. Donations from readers like you allow us to commit the time and attention needed to tell stories that are driving real change. Your support goes a long way toward sustaining this important work..

We’ve set a goal of $15,000 before September 25 — if you’re able, please donate today. We’re extremely grateful to each and every donor who helps power our journalism. We could not do it without you.

Donate