Jamie and I had been out this way once before back when we were in college. It was Memorial Day weekend. We loaded up his mom’s dusty Grand AM with sleeping bags, tent, and ice chest of Cokes, cold cuts, and franks and headed west down Interstate 20. Soon the city petered out into suburb, and suburb gave way to country, a land of oil rigs and Dairy Queens. We passed all manner of farms with their corresponding farmy smells—cattle farms, hog farms, cotton farms, the latter of which smelled not dissimilar from the first two.
And then things got strange. The flat unadorned plains I’d grown accustomed to in my seventeen years of living in North Texas and the panhandle unfurled into rolling hills, and farther west these hills dipped and catapulted into valleys and ranges whose peaks and broad slopes were stippled with awesome and terrifying alien turbines—wind farms.
Stranger still we passed through Midland, that petroleum-rich outpost from which our former president George W. Bush suckled as a child, its gleaming towers of black gold arising from nothing, like the great Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.
And then we reached the desert. Not arid, sandy soils but true desert–dunes as tall as forty feet on all four sides of the car. I recall a grade school teacher boasting that Texas is the only state in the nation to exhibit all of the major geological forms—plains, coastlines, canyons, mountains, plateaus, and yes, even desert.
We parked the Grand AM, unpacked the ice chest, and pitched our tent in the sand. We spent the next afternoon sledding down the dunes on platters whose bottoms we’d rubbed with blocks of wax.
Eight years later I found myself again traveling through West Texas, though this time not in a Grand AM but in a Greyhound, shackled at the hands and feet along with thirty-eight other inmates. Luckily there was no layover in Lubbock, but we did drop off some illegals in Garza County at what looked like a POW camp. The Hispanic sitting next to me turned away from the window.
“Glad I’m not getting off at this shit hole,” he said.
Our shit hole, it turned out, was about two hours further west, some twenty-five miles before Midland. The prison sits on a hill overlooking the weedy parking lots of Big Spring, population 28,000. Founded in 1881 with the coming of the rail, the city enjoyed a modest boom after oil was discovered in 1928. Today Big Spring’s industrial bread and butter includes oil refinement, meat packing, and the manufacturing of cottonseed, clay goods, and mattresses.
The prison was once an Army base, built in 1942, and still retains much of its former military bearings. The barracks are still in the business of housing. The chapel with its secular stained glass is still in the business of worshiping. The recreation center with its communal fireplace, whose flue has undoubtedly been sealed shut for security purposes, is still home to many a pool and foosball tournament. The gym remains a gym, the chow hall a chow hall. Perhaps even the striped red, white, and blue barber’s pole outside the barber shop is an original fixture. And were this a maximum-security penitentiary instead of a low-security facility, the now derelict air control tower would likely succeed as a gun turret. Army bases, it seems, are ideal for prison-making.
The transition from military base to corrections facility, however, isn’t perfect, and the building charged with processing incoming prisoners proved cramped and underequipped for the task. When it came time to be strip searched, I was made to undress inside a storage closet stacked with boxes of inmate property.
I’ve stripped and bared the underside of my balls for many officers in my inmate career. One eventually becomes immune to any bashfulness. Most officers don’t look too closely anyway. Some outright avert their eyes, choosing instead to stare at the ceiling, lest they have you believe they are faggots who enjoy looking up other men’s asses, though they don’t really look up your ass, unless you’re fat, in which case they might ask you to spread your cheeks. Turn. Squat. Cough. I’ve never understood that. Or rather I can’t see how squatting and coughing to be an effective means of dislodging contraband from one’s anus. I imagine even the most violent hacking wouldn’t much coax a sufficiently resolute sphincter.
After redressing I had my picture taken for a new identification card. Then I met with a nurse whose office was a mop closet retrofitted with a computer terminal.
She said, “Are you currently taking any medication?”
“Have you any know allergies? Are you allergic to any drugs?”
“Have you ever test positive for HIV or contracted an STD?”
“And have you”—she peered at me from behind her computer screen—“have you had sex with women prior to incarceration?” She added, “I know you’ve had sex with plenty of men . . .”
Plenty of men? Her computer says I’ve had sex with plenty of men? I don’t recall ever divulging this statistic, though I must have because, while not empirical, it was within relative reason. A guy I knew in college kept a very sophisticated spreadsheet on his computer of every man he’d ever slept with, and whether they’d had oral or anal sex, and whether they’d used a condom. (The idea for keeping such a document arose after a rather nasty brush with crabs.) Later in prison I compiled my own list. My total then was twenty-five. I also included each partner’s age and was pleased to know that none was younger than nineteen and the average fell in the upper thirties.
See, I thought. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re not a pedophile. You’re perfectly normal.
After the nurse came a counselor who assigned me a dormitory and bunk number. Then I spoke with the chief psychologist, a straight-backed and pointed woman who, upon telling her my charge, warned me that there are images circulating the compound of young girls’ faces superimposed on nude bodies, and if caught with such contraband in my possession it would mean very bad things for me.
The interviews and screenings and paperwork lasted five hours. We filed out of R&D at six o’clock with bed rolls tucked beneath our arms. The sun and breeze felt astonishing after spending nearly three weeks confined indoors at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. But my sense of well-being didn’t last long. Our procession of new and shiny faces had attracted an audience. As we passed the rec yard, joggers circling the track field slowed to a walk. Men on the weight piles lowered their dumbbells and dismounted the pull-up bars. Hand ball games were abandoned and the orphaned balls bounced and rolled toward the recreation yard’s fence where inmates lined up to survey us newcomers.
We shuffled past recreation down a pitted road that descended a hill. At the bottom of the hill the road was imposed on either side by a stretch of brown brick buildings which might have been mistaken for dated apartment complexes if not for the barred windows. As we neared the dormitories, more inmates appeared. They lined the road, sizing us up, taking us in. A man, a Mexican, I don’t know who or from where, squeezed by bicep. “Hey. What’s up?” he said. Horrified, I gripped by bed roll tighter and entered the building to the east, Sunrise.
Unlike the relatively spacious, semi-private two-man cells of Mississippi, the dormitories of Big Spring are chaotic hives of twenty-four-hour shared living space, a competing mess of twisting and thrashing, scratching and pecking, feeding and shitting—another West Texas farm of sorts. Unlike Mississippi there is no dayroom in which to stretch and spread, no tables or desks to sit and write a letter. There simply isn’t room. Every square inch of wall and floor space is spoken for by locker, bunk, or body. I had left the Ritz and checked into the EconoLodge.
The stairwell that serviced Sunrise was clearly designed for a smaller crowd of young, svelte military recruits. I had to keep my shoulders tucked in to avoid the down swell of 800 khakied bodies and 1,600 clomping boots. The steps bowed down the middle from the wear of so many boots, then boots of the uniformed and decorated, now boots of the uniformed and incarcerated.
On the top third floor I reached a foyer crammed with bodies. There was a mailbox and bulletin boards, and carved down one wall were pigeon holes in which men roosted, warming the telephone lines. I stepped around three Mexicans spilling from a darkened alcove. Inside: some thirty disembodied faces painted blue, impassive, raceless. Across from the TV room a pocket of men stood spooning instant coffee into mugs and crumbling ramen into yellow-stained Tupperware, awaiting a go at the hot water dispensers. I’d heard the place was overcapacity—most prisons in the U.S. are—but surely these conditions posed a safety hazard. God forbid a fire break out. We’d die trying to get down those stairs.
Though a door, hook a left, two steps down and to the right, I tapped a white man on the shoulder. “Fifty-seven upper?” He turned and looked at me, then pointed toward the end of the room. “All the way back,” he said.
I followed the man’s finger through a maze whose walls were built of stacked lockers and beds and of laundry strung out to dry: socks, towels, underwear—all of life’s pollution exposed. I picked my way through the debris. Lay spread on one bunk, four men played spades. On another six Mexicans rolled burritos. Hovering over the top of a locker, seemingly undistracted, two black men played chess. Elsewhere in their bunks men read, gossiped, and argued. They listened to loud music and ate and hustled. They gambled and bullshitted, belched and farted. And a few, amidst all the commotion, unfathomably, slept.
In reaching the end of the room, I still hadn’t found my bunk. The numbers scribbled on the lockers were out of order. I pressed on through a door marked exit. Another room. More bunks, more lockers, more bodies stacked on top of the other.
“Fifty-seven upper?” I said, and a young Mexican with bruised eyes and severe nose pointed to the bunk above and beside his own. He could have touched it, so close were the beds.
I shook hands with the man and the other young Mexican sitting beside him who was to be my bunkmate. They considered me with reserve as I gave them the spill I’d practiced beforehand, in the voice I’d practiced beforehand, one of nonchalant boredom which in my mind I associate with the voice of the unexceptional heterosexual male: Came from Mississippi. Originally from Dallas. Been down three and a half years. Got six more to go. (I believe incomplete sentences are another masculine trait.)
I wasted no time settling into my new home. I began by making the bed, which required me to get in the bed for lack of room. I used my locker as a stepladder and swiftly smacked my head against the ceiling. This amused the Mexicans. Then I attacked my mattress with a sheet as though I were trying to smother a fire. The bunk swayed, springs popped. Some brown paint from the bunk’s frame flaked off in my hand on the climb down. As I was placing the standard-issue toothbrush, comb, and bar soap in my broken and rusted out locker, I heard a familiar voice from around the corner.
I saw the back of him first—his coarse black hair matted with sweat, thick neck and wide girth, short legs void of ankles.
“Joe!” I cried. It was my old coworker from Mississippi. We had worked in the library together for years. He turned around, his beady black eyes shining, jowls dimpled. So beautiful in his familiarity. He grabbed my hand and clapped me on the back.
“Joe! You’re here! Isn’t this place just awful?”
“Ain’t it some shit?” he said. “They tricked us, man. They tricked us!”
“Joe, if the bus pulled up this very second—“
But he finished my thought: “I’d jump on it. I’d tell ‘em take me back. Please! Take my ass back to Mississippi!”