Thursday, January 24, 2013

To bad this week's verb wasn't "surreal".

After chomping my way through the lunch special at the Turn Around Cafe in Spur last week, I drove down a road not yet taken and found the abandoned prison.  (Here are a couple of articles about how the prison came to be abandoned.  The first one gets really interesting towards the end.  The second one explains some of the reasons why the first one got so interesting.)  I expected to drive up to a fence, a hundred or so yards from the facility and stare at it briefly before turning around to leave.

Not so.

This week when I went back, I packed my camera.

The privately run prison, which closed in late 2010, sits atop a vague knoll, not really a hill, about two miles south of town, hiding behind a field of mesquite.  The low-profile sign, simple even by prison standards, announced the presence of the facility in plain block letters.  The prison itself lies at the end of a half-mile paved driveway.  There are no fences.  No barriers. Nothing but the sign by the side of the road.

Nothing had changed from last week as I entered the main parking lot at the end of the driveway.  I debated whether or not to park in the empty warden's spot, as if I owned the freakin' place and had every right to be there.  Sneakiness trumped brashness and I parked along the far side of the lot, hoping the electric blue Dodge Avenger I was driving would blend in with, well, the sky and not be quite so obvious should anyone venture down the driveway from the highway.

The seasonably cold air put a sharp edge on the wind.  I didn't have a jacket, but hoped that walking around the place might keep me warm.

Reaching over the back of the seat, I grabbed the camera from the back and got out of the car.    I looked around for No Trespassing signs.  There weren't any. The gravel crunching under my boots sounded unnaturally loud as I crossed the deserted parking lot.

The place was abandoned, but not forsaken, if that makes sense.  It's like some sort of Satanic rapture had occurred, maybe ten minutes earlier, taking only the bad guys.  Whoosh!  At first glance, everything appeared exactly the same as it must have at the close of business on the last day of operation, two years previously.  At second glance, I noticed the tumbleweeds.  At third - the unlocked gate.

One of the main gates to the prison yard was unlocked and open.  Just a foot or so.  Just wide enough for me to slide through sideways or to grasp the edge and pull it wide.  If I wanted too.  No one was around... No one would see...

Through a feat of super-human resistance that King David himself would have been jealous of, I bested the temptation and managed not to go through the gate to the interior spaces.

This prison - a privately run, for-profit, institution - was big into razor wire.  It's everywhere - roll upon roll of it.  The state prisons I've visited use the same concertina-type stuff, but sparingly.  This place looked cheap -like an over-sized dog run, home to really bad dogs.  Low tech security with all the soft, pleasing architecture of Auschwitz.

The main buildings up front are painted in a vague flag motif.  Blocks of blue with bits of red and white striping at the edges.  It lends a concentration camp carnival feel to the place.  The administration buildings at the front of the unit were bright and clean.  In the back a long row of barracks type buildings comprised the inmate housing.  They were  dingy, low slung cinder block buildings - chalky white with tiny windows.

An omnipresent, continual high pitched whine permeated the area. As I circled the property, I finally located the source - a large metal box, about the size on an industrial refrigerator.  Or two.  The hunk of metal was painted orange and black with no markings that would identify it to the uninitiated.  It sat on a concrete pad next to the electric meters.  And whined - a single toneless note, on and on and on to extremely creepy effect.  It reminded me of something...

(Anyone else watch The Avengers?  Anyone remember this episode?)

I continued my circuit around the property.  Past the electric meters,  I saw that the gas meters were gone.  But the sewage grinder remained.

More than once as I swept my camera lens past the guard towers, I thought I caught a glimpse of men inside.    Only a trick of the light and closer inspection revealed nothing, of course, but it remained disconcerting.  I seldom see men who aren't there.

Still I didn't see any "No Trespassing" signs.  No, not one.  I was surprised by this, but I supposed no one really wants to break INTO prison, so trespassing isn't really an issue.  There were, however, a couple of "STOP - Entering Restricted Area" signs.  As they were obviously left-overs from the facility's functioning days, and since they barely made any effort with them - small signs tacked to telephone poles on the sides of the path/road leading to the back of the location - I ignored them with impunity and no small amount of disdain.

I didn't spend much time in the back of the prison.  The wind blew harder there and my shirt, albeit long-sleeved, was woefully inadequate.

As I made my way back around to the front I stopped.  Dead.

The gates were still open.  But now they were open wide.  Beckoning.  Yawning.  Tempting.

It was dodgy for a bit.  I reeeeaallly wanted to go inside.  They were practically begging me to enter!  I texted the Judge's assistant and asked her what the district's policy is on posting bail for employees.  She didn't answer.  I decided not to chance it.  Besides, it was damn creepy.  The wind wasn't blowing hard enough to move those chain-link monstrosities. And it almost certainly wouldn't have moved the gates in opposite directions!

I made my way back to the car, glancing back over my shoulder a time or two.  The only sign, other than the empty parking lot, that this place wasn't ready and waiting for business, were the few small tumble weeds gathered at the main entrance.

That, and the open, viciously welcoming, prison gate.

As I drove back towards the highway, I was startled to see a FedEx van turn onto the short road and head out towards the prison parking lot.  I made a half-hearted attempt to stop him - to tell him his GPS was obviously misguided.  He didn't see me.  I was sort of glad.  I felt sure that if I did see him up close, he'd have no eyeballs.  Or maybe vampire fangs.  Or stink of death like a zombie.  Yep, pretty sure.

(Do you see 'em?  The guards that aren't there?)

Spur is one of numerous small towns in West Texas that attempted urban renewal via the prison-industrial complex, profit-driven or governmental.  For a few short years it seemed to be a real economic savior.  But we're all learning we can't sustain, economically or otherwise, a prison system that has a higher incarceration rate than China.  

This month it was reported that the Texas Association of Business, one of the most powerful lobbies in the state, is making reform of criminal justice funding a priority.  Why?  

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said the group plans to push to expand successful rehabilitation and community-based corrections programs; to change Texas’ drug-sentencing laws to put more low-level offenders in local treatment programs and reduce penalties for small amounts of drugs; and to modify state licensing laws that keep some ex-convicts from ever becoming certified for various trades.
“We’re sending too many people to the slammer,” Hammond said. “The taxpayers and the business community are both being harmed.”

I think this is a good thing.  But then, I would, what with being all "community-based corrections program"-y and stuff.

All I really know is those damn gates didn't open by themselves.