Let the midnight special shine her light on me

This posting is coming to you from three blocks away from the infamous, old, red-brick "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville, Texas.

Where Leadbelly served time and wrote "Midnight Special" about the prison train he hoped would take him away.

And where Texas' state executions still take place. One of the sadder, grimmer places in America.

book/daddy hasn't posted much this week because he and the missus fled the Great Water Heater Explosion and Kitchen Demolition for lovely Huntsville. Surely a garden-spot, vacation highlight of Texas. We're here for a teacher conference Sara needed to attend. Anyone who thinks public school teachers have it easy because they have summers off has never heard of the dread "professional development." There are different kinds of incarceration, after all.

But you don't understand "incarceration" until you've been to Huntsville. book/daddy has passed the Texas State Prison many times on Highway 45 between Houston and Dallas. The complex of guard towers and razor wire stretching to the horizon is clearly visible from the road. But he'd never stopped here. And there's little reason to do so, unless you have friends or relatives locked up inside (which, it turns out, we do -- someone previously related to Sara's family).

The full extent of the "prison industry" is plain when you come to Huntsville, an entire town pretty much devoted to that one enterprise. There are 151 prisons in Texas and six of them are here. There's the crumbling, old prison rodeo arena, the guard uniform stores in town and the nearby horse farms that provide horses for the mounted corrections officers. There's the Texas Prison Museum (run by retired warden Jim Willett and worth a stop, by the way) and Sam Houston State University, which has a college devoted to training prison administrators and staff. Every other building is a TDCJ (Texas Department of Corrections and Justice) facility, and the ones that aren't, like the college dorms and this hotel, look like they were designed and built by prison guards.

One has rarely seen such a haunting articulation of Michel Foucault's ideas about Enlightenment and control. An embodiment of the death penalty, Huntsville seems a place designed for sorrow and despair. The fact that what originally stood on the Walls site was a children's school nicknamed the "Brick Academy" only reinforces the connections.

For another thing, book/daddy hadn't realized that the sprawling prison out by the highway is mostly the newer construction (much of it since the '90s and the massive rise in prison population in America, plus the Ruiz lawsuit that forced the state to build more facilities). The Walls unit, meanwhile, is practically downtown -- only a few blocks from the courthouse square and a short stroll from the university. I can almost see it from my hotel room (a few trees block the view).

It's like having Death Row in your neighborhood. The forlorn atmosphere is embellished by the rainy gloom that often settles over the Piney Woods area (where Texas more closely resembles Louisiana than what people typically think of as "Texas"). Huntsville inspired Robert Draper's flawed prison gothic, his debut novel, Hadrian's Walls, but what one really feels here -- despite the fast-food chains and modern penology and patches of affluent suburbia -- is that you're trapped in some Warner Brothers chain gang movie. Or a faded Walker Evans photo. Shotgun shacks; abandoned warehouses; thick, wet trees and grass, men dressed as prison trustees. Nothing's changed much.

In short, a true romantic getaway weekend. Sara's conference schedule keeps her off somewhere in meetings and me alone, writing and reading and catching up on cable TV in our hotel room. A happy result: book/daddy should be posting a substantial review later this week. The other pleasant event was our late-night stop at the Homestead restaurant, a superb eatery housed in an old cabin.

Otherwise, to quote Pulp Fiction, this place sure gets medieval on your ass.

July 22, 2007 9:02 AM |



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