Donald Trump in Hickory, North Carolina, on Monday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
It's safe to say Donald Trump means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people think he should be the next president of the United States, some think he's a fascist who supports white supremacist policies, and a few people think that he should be the next US president because he supports white supremacy. Everyone from taxi drivers to professional pundits has an opinion on Donald Trump, and so do America's prison inmates—even if they can't vote, for the most part, they are as excited and/or scared as the rest of the country.
"Donald Trump is a paradoxical individual," says Tut, a 52-year-old African-American from New York doing life in federal prison for a "three strikes" violation. "He is an extremely successful businessman, but everything in life isn't about money. People are not real estate, and every economy doesn't deal with currency. There is a human economy that supersedes the monetary and materialistic ideals of powerful people. He needs to understand the fact that the presidency isn't a pissing contest."
Many prisoners see Barack Obama's movements toward criminal justice reform as encouraging for obvious reasons, and the prospect of Trump, who can come off as a cartoonish authoritarian, doesn't seem like a step forward.
"The guy scares the hell out of me," Alex, a white guy doing ten years at medium-security prison in Tennessee for growing marijuana, tells VICE. "I believe he's Hitler reincarnated. He is a war- and fear-monger. Just like Hitler, he tells the people what he knows they want to hear and makes promises he can't keep and has no way of backing it up. He wants to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, and he wants to kick out and alienate all the Muslims. I can't believe people entertain this con artist."
Scammer, con man, huckster—those are a few of the terms that come to inmates' minds when they talk about Trump. But a lot of prisoners don't really have a problem with the candidate's unabashed acquisitive nature. Like many Americans, they see his skill at making money as a potential asset for a president.
Dinger, a 40-year-old black man from Pittsburgh doing 20 years at federal prison in Kentucky for drug offenses, counts himself a fan. "I don't know too much about him, but he had his own casino. I think anyone that had his own casino would be a great president if he's elected," he says, adding hopefully, "I hope he changes these laws, so that I can get the hell outta here sooner."
To a swath of America's condemned population, Trump offers a breath of fresh air—even if the country should never have reached such a dire state.
"Something is very wrong with that picture," Chris, a 36-year-old white man from Ohio doing 52 months for Oxycontin distribution, tells me. "Looking at his background, he is a savvy businessman who has made a fortune. But considering his past, he has no political background. Unfortunately, he is the best person for us to elect. And that's sad! American people really need to look at this and understand how bad this country has become."
Most Hispanics in the country can't stand Trump, and Beans—a 45-year-old Sureño gang member from Mexico by way of Florida doing an eight-year sentence for illegal reentry—is no exception.
"I hate Trump," he tells VICE. "I came to this country when I was four years old. I did everything right till I got in trouble in 1992 for guns. I made a mistake and did four years in prison because of it and got deported to Mexico. I came back because I didn't have family in Mexico. I was working hard. Every day work, work, work, till I got stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and charged with reentry. Trump, whatever he's thinking, I don't think it's fair. Everyone has the right to live a good life regardless of past mistakes."
And Willie, a 30-year-old Native American from Alaska doing seven years for drugs, thinks that if Trump is serious about his immigration polices, he needs to deport himself. "If he was real about kicking out immigrants, he should leave too. Because Native Americans are the only true natives of this country," he says.
Multiple prisoners I spoke to believe Trump's campaign staff are behind the burst of violence—and that the mayhem is calculated to boost his standing.
"I think Trump is behind the violence and the people running his campaign are badass," Dave, a 44-year-old white guy from Kentucky doing 17 years for a bomb-related crime, tells me. "I don't think he'll be president, but he's doing exactly what he was supposed to do. As far as helping us though, he damn sure isn't going to do a thing to help us."
It's safe to say plenty of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans inside the prison-industrial complex view Trump as a racist who only wants to make America great for white people. But it's a fact that Trump's campaign has put the spotlight on race—an issue that is even more charged inside prison than outside it.
"Trump creates racial divisions within the Democratic and Republican parties unseen since the civil rights era," argues Sly, an African-American federal prisoner from Buffalo who's doing life for drug and gun crimes. "He pushes racial divisions between the American people."
Those divisions have exploded into violence in places like Chicago over the weekend. But some prisoners, including people of color, can't resist the charm of a hyper-masculine blowhard.
"As a black man in America, to finally witness a candidate like Trump pursue the White House with brutal honesty and be successful ranks right next to witnessing the first black man become the president of the United States," says Tea Mack, a 42-year-old Chicago native doing a sentence of 420 months for a conspiracy to commit kidnapping charge.
Federal prison inmates can't vote, and most state and local inmates can't either. Even many former convicts—especially in states like Florida—are barred from the democratic process. But that doesn't mean America's least visible citizens don't understand what's going on right now.
"Obama has tried to make America a better place for all," says Alex, the Tennessee inmate. "He has tried to right some of the wrongs committed by our government. I like the direction he has pointed this country. And now we have Hillary and Trump. Now, I'm not opposed to a woman running the country, but she has to have some balls, not pockets looking to be filled. It is disheartening to think that these are the best two people in America who can run the country."