Big Spring is at the heart of the prison-industrial complex in America. The total population of the West Texas town is little more than 20,000, but there are two full prisons and an immigration facility that, in total, house no fewer than 4,000 prisoners. Considering day shifts, night shifts, weekend shifts for the guards, support systems like food service, sanitation, administration, health care, janitorial duties, and maintenance: more than 60 percent of the households in towns like Big Spring are dependent on the prison paycheck. And there are thousands of towns like Big Spring across the country. In other words, if you stop jailing people in The Land of The Free, a good chunk of America would wither up and die.1
I had to fly into Lubbock—a beautiful city—then take a shuttle to a motel in Big Spring. “American owned.” The sheets smelled bad, like someone died in them. Cigarette butts in the bathroom sink. I could hear the TV in the next room blaring, some couple arguing over it: You said you was gonna go get cigarettes—Damnit, Dave, I’ll ask Ron to go get me cigarettes if you ain’t gonna do it—Don’t you talk about Ron. Everyone in prison towns knows why you’re there, which they think gives them the right to treat you like shit. They openly disrespect you. Even though it’s your sad dollar that keeps them in business. I went to the front desk and asked the hotel lady where I could go get something to eat. A look of total disgust through the flab folds in her face, as though me and my kind were everything wrong with this country: “I dunno. Chake the frickin yellee pages.”
The moment I walked in through the doors they identified me as inmate family scum. Black man in the South circa 1945. I sat there reflecting on dreams, ideals, visions. Statements whose endings didn’t end in a question mark? A fight less godforsaken or god forbid not godforsaken at all? A state of being that thrives, endures, and nourishes. Is there struggle left in the American endeavor? Can we find our purpose? Or has the cell door closed behind us once and for all?
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
The place was packed, all males with the exact same moustaches and haircuts. If I was in the city, I would have thought it was a gay bar. I ordered a Lone Star. I had maybe two sips before I caught a hard elbow in the back. On my next sip somebody kicked my stool, making me spill beer on my shirt. I turned around. Five or six of them were mad-dogging me, looking like they wanted to kick my ass. I drank the rest of my beer in one chug and took off, got back to the hotel and laid there wired all night in a wannabe Dostoevskian situation with Satan:
The Dev: I give you the following choice, J.
Break it down, Dev.
The Dev: You can remain now as you are: poor and unrecognized throughout your life. Bottom of the American condition.
I hear ya.
The Dev: You will be a rebel. Not a revolutionary. Against everything, but for nothing. A whiner on the cheap end of the consumer spectrum, trying to cover your defects with fashion that doesn’t belong on a forty-year-old. You see this graph here? Points to an X-Y axis on a cardboard.
The Dev: That’s you having less and less sex over time.
The Dev: The more mediocre people you know will experience success. Some will achieve fame, some wealth, main thing is that they will be happy ensconced in the status quo while you continue to burn up over the great injustice and inequities of it all.
The symphony of futility.
The Dev: Exactly. They will ignore your emails, not return phone calls. You will blame this on class and generalized yack about the system, and this will have some merit, but overall this is just the way things work. You get left behind. Unappreciated. An outsider even amongst the outsiders.
People don’t know what I’m talking about?
The Dev: They do, but you don’t get it across clearly enough. You’re not the dude to get the job done.
I don’t convey the sadness of what it was really like to be there—
The Dev: Maybe, I don’t know, but here’s the other side of the gig. A month from now you’re sitting in a café. Some students are jerking themselves off with a student film and ask you to say a couple lines. You do it and some producer out there sees something in you. The film is shit but you stand out so that a star is born. You become famous. And it’s a cool kind of arty fame, too. The one that everyone in your generation is going for. People think you’re intense. They listen. You become a guy who can speak out on things. You’ve got money, a life with houses in the south of France, plus the whole consciousness of a generation thing.
But I can’t stand my generation.
The Dev: It doesn’t matter. Anyone who ever had anything interesting to say about his generation couldn’t stand his generation. The whole voice of a generation thing is just a bunch of people who couldn’t stand their generation.
The Dev: So what do you want to do?
I guess I have a question.
The Dev: Hit me.
Do I experience world-changing fame so that the world actually changes?
The Dev: You’re asking if art can change the world?
Something along those lines.
The Dev: No. Art is more about being obedient than it is about anything else. Someone calls themselves an artist today, it’s like we can go ahead and write them off as any kind of threat right there.
The Dev: But what if somehow you were to put together the right combination of revolutionary action and expression that resulted in grabbing power by the throat and sending this society into a radical 180?
Then I wouldn’t even have to get credit for it.
The Dev: You really love humanity, don’t you?
No. I just like life more when interesting things are happening. I like life more when people in power feel scared. I like the smell of disobedience in the air.
I feel tormented and diminished everywhere except for the hell of Big Spring, Texas.
I woke up the next morning to the TV blaring, the couple next door fighting—you ain’t no kinda man like Ron…Don’t you talk about Ron!—got dressed up in my one and only sport coat and drove to the federal penitentiary. Prisons are already disturbing, but there’s something even more disturbing about a prison that’s in the middle of a dry plain. The barbed wire seems more sharp and vicious, the guard towers more prominent. You feel like you’re being watched through the scope of a high-powered rifle.
A new, corporate, medium-security facility. Beige on beige. I went through the visitors’ entrance, filled out papers, went through an extensive body search. As they frisked me top to bottom and back again, way more pushy and invasive than they needed to be, I recognized three of the guards from the bar the night before. They were eyeballing all of us condescendingly, making hushed comments, really getting off on their power. I know that they recognized me because one of them smiled, nudged the other one, and whispered something. They sent me into the visitor’s room to sit and wait.
As dark and oppressive as old prisons are, there’s something more fascist and evil about modern prisons, like the difference between a local butcher and a corporate slaughterhouse. You picture people being processed surgically and efficiently. You feel the workings of the machine. I could see my father through a portal window being searched. A look of detachment on his face as they pushed him through like cattle.
He actually looked good. Taking his age into consideration, the best since being incarcerated. Physically, they do a good job of taking care of the inmates in the new prison-industrial complex. They feed them enough food. Give them enough exercise. And unless they’re in special housing, provide them with enough water and sunlight. The inmates are the products in corporate corrections. And the corporation will be stuck with extra costs and expenses if the products deteriorate, which would negatively impact profit margins.
Mentally, however, he was a different man. A distant man. The nervousness was gone. There was no more attempt at trying to be something that he thought he once was. The memories of life had been replaced by the memories of prison. There was a disconnection, not cold, but like a business meeting rather than a reunion between father and son. Our relationship felt like it had been scrubbed out and sanitized, like the hi-tech corporate prison which surrounded us. We shook hands. We exchanged a greeting. We went and sat in a corner. And we watched TV. Magnum P.I. He would ask me something every so often, I would reply and we would pass by each other, never really connecting. The distance between us was difficult, but the truly heartbreaking distance was the one that I could see between the man and himself. My father and I were strangers. He had spent seven years in a repressive institution, did what he had to do to survive, and we didn’t really know each other anymore. The main relationship in his life was with the institution. The time had taken its toll. The system had ground him down. I honestly don’t know what you have to do to get through the night when you’re lying alone in prison after seven years while thinking about the fact that you still have nine to go, but it can’t be something that engenders warmth or openness, or that brings you closer to humanity. I can’t say with any certainty what it’s like to have the State own and control every cell in your body while replacing your name with a number so that you’re no longer seen as a person—26109-079—but my sense is that it doesn’t breed a full and holistic integration with one’s soul and self.
The day they go in is like a vase breaking on the concrete from 10 stories up. There is no picking up the pieces. There is no salvaging what once was. All you can do is look at the mantle and try to remember that there was once something there, but with every year that passes it becomes harder and harder until you get more used to the presence of emptiness than the actual thing that might have been.
Once they nail you up there, then you bleed forever. There are nightmares from which we never wake up. Suicides where you think you are fucking the establishment, but the establishment is fucking you. Permanently. Desolation is knowing there’s nothing to know. There’s nothing to write about—and if there was, you aren’t the person to do it.
The ending here is that all of this happened to me and I failed. The world didn’t change. Things just got worse. My story is the story of millions. It is the underbelly truth of a nation floating in a filthy ocean of lies. All I can offer is the truth, the story of a child of his own time. A time that is summed up by prisons and obedience, insult and isolation. A time where nothing happened, so that there was nothing to reflect on. Only the emptiness of a young man still walking along that empty highway road.
N.B. I don’t even know why I do this shit anymore. I’m 44-years old. What am I still doing playing “writer boy.” Trying to rah rah the world into some kind of change. Yacking in one way or another about resistance, art, and culture. There is no resistance, art sucks and we have no fucking culture. Worst choice I ever made, getting involved in this left art bullshit. I should have been a corporate lawyer, focused on making as much money as possible.
Cf. As a socialist writer, it’s not only an honor, but a duty, to find the work that gives voice to the aspirations of the lower classes and thus enriches our culture. Art, film, books—they are the glue that holds us together. I don’t see myself as doing anything special or unique, but only contributing my tiny note to the already beautiful song that runs through our history. The road hasn’t always been easy and, yes, there have been times when I have questioned the path that I have chosen—but in moments like these, it all seems worth it.
1. Enter the darkening of the United States. The ones relying on the night. Inside those others of control. The new fraud where liberty went to fade.