Watching the Trump Trials in Prison, With Con Artists Cheering Him On

May 15, 2024

Our living unit at South Central Correctional Facility in Tennessee doesn’t have a communal TV, but there are TVs in the cells of those who can afford to buy them. On special occasions—sporting events, usually—someone will run a long extension cord out to the day room and bring a TV for friends and neighbors to gather round. It’s too bad that New York doesn’t televise criminal proceedings like the “hush money” trial against former president Donald Trump that began mid-April. Trump testifying in court would be bigger than the Super Bowl here.

Trump is very popular in prison, which always seems to surprise people who are not in prison. For my part, I am always surprised that they are surprised. Prisons are full of people who didn’t get higher education; who never caught a break; who live inside a pressure cooker of xenophobia and racism; who were con artists themselves; and on and on. Why wouldn’t Trump’s biggest fans be in here?

If it’s known that Fox News is covering something juicy, you might see a small crowd here glued to a TV like they’re watching a hometown hero get his shot at the championship. I walked by one old head who was so enthralled when Trump appeared onscreen he started rocking back on forth on his metal stool. “That motherfucker is a gangster,” he muttered. “A fucking cult leader.”

Mostly it’s the audacity of the con that impresses them. Among fellow con artists, there’s a deep and abiding appreciation for Trump’s gamesmanship. And the absolute brazenness of conning people so publicly, without even having to hide it.

“People knew I wasn’t selling real Rolexes. They just needed me to convince them that the fake would pass for real.”

Buster* is in his 70s now, but back in the day he used to offer roofing or paving services to little old ladies who’d write him a check up front, upon which he’d promptly disappear. He’d use different selling points each time—whatever each mark needed to hear. They were getting the best price. Their driveway would outshine a neighbor’s. The job would get done quick. The money was going to a good cause.

“Think about it,” Buster said. “Trump convinced folks that Mexico would pay for the wall. They didn’t! He convinced banks that he had billions more dollars than he really had … convinced the GOP that he was a Republican … that his college was legit … that an election was stolen … that the government was after him. Now he’s trying to convince people, again, that he’s trustworthy to be president. That’s badass.”

Sammy* concurred. “You need to be able to argue both sides,” he said. “Until you see what sparks the eye of the mark.”

Luca* was sent to prison after he got caught using credit card numbers that didn’t belong to him; he’d order various items online and ship to a third party “dump house” to retrieve later. Trump’s con put him in mind of how he used to sell knockoff Rolex watches.

“People knew I wasn’t selling real Rolexes. They just needed me to convince them that the fake would pass for real,” he said. “Trump’s a fucking genius—he’s convinced his marks that all his fake-ass lies are real. When you can do that, you can sell them anything.”

The con artists here haven’t always conned out of necessity—that is, for basic needs rather than comfort—but most if not all of them probably have at some point. Few people born with the coveted silver spoon grow up to spend their lives in prison.

There’s a lot of vicarious living going on among prisoners who idolize Trump, but that doesn’t mean they don’t resent him at the same time—mostly for the high-priced lawyers. Many here have had to represent themselves, or would be free if not for public defenders who pushed quick plea bargains without ever really looking at their cases.

It’s the same way they cheer when an escaped prisoner makes the evening news—one of their own, eluding the long arm of the law.

“A good con man says whatever someone needs to hear,” Buster said. “If people fall for it, oh well.”

Frank* used to sell counterfeit drugs, reasoning that his marks were already breaking the law by trying to buy illicit drugs, so getting conned in the process was on them.

“They should have verified the realness of the product,” he said. “If people believe what Trump says without verifying the facts, they’re not victims. They’re accomplices.”

Of course, most drug users don’t have a way to tell whether the cocaine they’ve bought happens to be baby aspirin. Surely some of Trump’s believers are inclined to check the facts, but who’s to say what news is real or fake these days. The facts that find them are often the ones they already wanted to believe.

The general sentiment among the prisoners here who gather round the TV is that they know Trump has broken the law 1,000 times over, compared to anything they ever did. If they belong in here, then Trump definitely does.

They’ll cheer if he ever does get sent to prison. They also root for him for as long as he avoids it. It’s the exact same way they root for escaped prisoners who make the evening news—one of their own, eluding the long arm of the law. Each passing day that the law still hasn’t caught up with him, it’s a victory for all of them.



Names changed to protect privacy

Image via Representative Chellie Pingree

Tony Vick

Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He's also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.  

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