My Neighbors, the Prisoners

I move a lot. This last move was no big deal compared to the others. It was right across town instead of across the country. I found a cheaper place, which was cool because I’ll be unemployed in a few months and my married landlord kept asking me out at the last place. The new little house was much cuter too and in a neighborhood instead of an apartment block. I was excited about having a yard to sit in this summer. There was just this one little thing, my new house sits directly across the street from the state’s maximum security prison. No wonder it was so cheap! My friends came over to help me move and when we delivered the first load they just stood there looking out across the road. A moment or two passed and someone muttered, “I didn’t realize you lived right across the street.”

I do live right across the street. When I moved in everyone told me that I shouldn’t be afraid because the last person to break out did so in the ‘80s. Fear has never even crossed my mind because even if you are a bit insane you aren’t going to stop in to say hi to the neighbors across the street right after your big, dramatic prison break. That is my hope at least, and I’m stickin’ to it. That and I fished out the pepper spray my mom sent me a few years ago. The view from my front windows is of barbwire, lots of it. There are guards’ towers and two massive buildings that look like they used to be tire factories. I’ve often wondered what it looks like inside. I imagine big machines with people in coveralls shoving rubber in them three shifts a day. Not really much of a home, but some of the folks that call it home now will never leave. They’ve seen their last day outside those big factory-like buildings.

One of the strangest things for me has been observing neighborhood life in front of the prison backdrop. There are some folks that live kitty-corner across the street. Their backyards contain grass, a load of children’s toys, their garage, and a massive barbwire fence. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve had lately was sitting on my front porch watching the boys across the street run around the yard taking aim at each other with toy guns. My eyes darted over to the factory/ home of 1600 men whose lives have most likely been negatively affected by guns then back at the kids pretending to shoot each other, in a friendly way, of course. I’m not saying we shouldn’t let kids play with guns (Actually maybe I am. I grew up with a ban on Barbies and I’m pretty well adjusted.). I am saying that my mind was charged with thoughts about how the men in the factory/home were probably just like those kids several, perhaps many years ago. What happened between the Cops and Robbers phase of life and the behind bars phase?

Sundays are the busiest days around the prison and the most interesting for me because there is so much people watching to be done from my front window. Easter Sunday was a circus. Everyone came to visit that day. Families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and dress pulled fancy SUVs or beat up compact cars into the gravel lot and made their way up the long sidewalk. There were mothers and fathers walking close to each other. Little kids swinging by the hands of the adults they were walking with. People carrying books and small gifts. Throw in some food and a few blankets on the grass and it could have been a pretty festive occasion. But in they went, through the slamming doors and metal detectors to see the men that they love inside. A short while later the same people came strolling out, back down the long sidewalk, into their cars and out of the gravel lot.

A few Sundays ago I had some friends up for a visit. We went outside to have our breakfast burritos on the porch. We sat down and the conversation paused as we shoved the food in our mouths. “What was that,” my friend said, “did you hear that? Is it yelling from the prison?” We all stopped chewing long enough to hear the rhythmic “yelling” coming from the other side of the barbwire. I hadn’t heard anything from inside the factory/home before except for this very loud horn they blow three times a day to let all of us on the outside know that things are ok inside. After a few more long pauses, we realized that someone was preaching, the revival, hell-fire and brimstone kind of preaching. We ate the rest of our breakfast and decided to do a little exploring to find the revival. We rounded the corner and walked up the side of the building past the guard tower until we heard the preacher pretty well. We walked slower to try and catch what he was telling his audience inside the factory/home, but couldn’t make anything out. Then, we saw them, lots of men in blue uniforms on the other side of the barbwire. They were my neighbors and I’d been living in this place for weeks and I’d never seen nor heard any of them.

The prisoner/neighbors were out playing volleyball and soccer, a few were running around a make-shift track. Most were just standing around enjoying the spring morning. My friends and I stood on the football field where they have little league practice and watched the neighbors play their sports for awhile. After a long pause we looked at each other for a moment, as if to all say, “This is really weird, right? They are locked in there and we go for Sunday morning walks.” We turned around and walked home talking about what many people in their late-twenties talk about with their friends, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? All the while some of those men know exactly what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives. Playing volleyball on Sunday mornings inside a tall fence.

I’ve lived in a rough place or two in my life, traveled to countries were poverty is all consuming, and I thought, without much pause, that I could handle living next to the factory/home. I thought that I would get used to it. That I would think about the folks inside and feel like I should contribute to the world in such a way that maybe one less person would have to be in there. I thought it would motivate me to work and study and go out into the world and do good. I guess maybe it is doing that in part, but you know what? I’m just sad. I’m sad that some of my prisoner/neighbors are really sick and really hurt. I’m sad that people do horrific things and may need to be separated from the rest of us. I’m sad that we can’t, or don’t, want to find a better way to help people who are angry and abused. I’m sad that I can see the little boys in the neighborhood and know that those men in that prison were once that age too, just playing with the toy guns. But the guns became real, choices were made and the cops started chasing. So, I’m just sad now. Maybe that’ll turn into something else. I hope it will. I pray it will.

Originally published on Burnside Writers Collective 2012.

Image Citation. 

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