Carol Countryman

Don't Mess with Texas ... Prisons

It is said that Texas leads the nation in prisons and highways. I suspect it's true, as I have experienced first-hand the wrath of small-town East Texas when its chance to host a prison -- and potential jobs -- are threatened.

After learning that a private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, a division of a Utah-based rocket-building company, was itching to build a "super intensive mandatory supervision" pre-parole work detail-type community pseudoprison near my children's school, naturally I balked.

Okay, I did more than balk after discovering that these guys, who would be released to work in the community by day and be in medium-security lockup by night, were hard-core criminals, including sex offenders. I figured that no sane person could possibly want this type of facility so close to a school. I figured I could go to the required public hearing, inform the good folks of just exactly what type of prisoners we were talking about, everyone would say thanks, but no thanks, and the rocket-building prison company would be on its merry little way.

Boy, was I wrong.

I decided the best tack was to compile as much information on parolees, particularly the mandatory-release type, and just inform the community. Mandatory-release prisoners are just as the name suggests. They must be released if their time served plus their good time credit equals their sentence. I vaguely had heard of mandatory release because so many of the high-profile child killers of the last several years involved cons who were released from prison under the mandatory release law. And this company wanted felons from all over the state.

I proceeded to spend a ton of money in research, phone calls, and printing information for distribution at the public hearing. How difficult could this be, I thought, what with the problems of private prisons being played out daily in state newspapers and on the national evening news?

All I can say in my defense is that I was woefully naive.

I arrived at the public hearing a half-hour early, only to discover that the little community center was already packed with blue-hairs from the Methodist church. Onward these Christian soldiers marched -- albeit slowly -- the rhythmic tapping of canes and clopping of orthopedic shoes echoing throughout the room like a some form of geriatric Tap Dogs. And leading the troupe was the local Methodist preacher, his coke-bottle glasses foggy from the steam created by so many moist bodies crammed into such tight space.

What took place next was not unlike a live amateur production of Hee Haw meets Footloose on the town square. As folks were filing into the stifling hot building, I stood outside and handed out the little fliers I had printed. Imagine my astonishment when -- thwack! -- the papers I had handed out were being balled up and thrown at me. Wads of paper pelted me, bouncing off my head, my chest, my legs, like a game of really lopsided dodge ball.

I ducked into the building just as the hearing was starting. I positioned myself at the front of the room (nearest to the air conditioner) just in time to hear the man who had led the crowd in its paper wad assault on me. He said he was a prison guard and told the crowd not to worry about prisoners escaping and hiding out in the town -- if they did escape, why, the guards would just find 'em and shoot 'em.

Next up, the preacher, standing just in front of me, kicked into his pulpit mode. "When I came to this town a year ago," he addressed the crowd, his voice rising in several octaves, "the first thing I saw was potholes and dilapidated buildings. And that was the good part...." The insult zoomed right over the crowd's slightly balding heads, I guess, because, to my surprise, they started "Amening" him.

Then he held up an unwadded flier of mine, turned slightly, pointed at me and told the crowd that the information the fliers contained (which were statistics on recidivism of parolees and had been downloaded off Republican state senator Jerry Patterson's web site) couldn't be trusted because, "You know where this information came from?" he queried, his agitation unmistakable, "It came from the Internet.

The last word was spoken with such disgust as if it was from Satan's own home page.

He continued to preach about the sins of the Internet, each word damning me for using it, and making me appear to be some type of pornographer. By the time he was done, the crowd was extremely sympathetic to the prisoners and was ready to stone me.

The little old ladies of this town were convinced that if the pre-parole facility were allowed to locate in our midst, their water bills would go down. The private prison would pay not one red cent in tax dollars, but the town fathers figured that if they could sell the prison enough water and sewer services, they could receive state and federal grants to update their system. Then, the citizens were told, their water bills would be reduced.

From that moment on, it seems, the citizenry heard nothing else. They didn't seem concerned that these were murderers and sex offenders. They didn't seem concerned that prisoners routinely escape from these types of facilities, often just walking away while on work detail. They didn't even seem concerned that all this would be locating near us without paying any taxes.

And talk about corporate welfare! Not only would this for-profit prison pay no taxes, it would be built with tax-free bonds. In addition, the company would make oodles of money leasing out the convict labor to companies, municipalities and even school districts as contract labor. One prison representative raved about how this is great for cities and schools. They could get maintenance done without paying the outrageous salaries city and school employees seem to unreasonably demand of late.

Heck, the scenario they painted was a rosy one. Trouble is, it would displace honest, hard-working citizens. The only hitch in this new private prison road to government fiscal responsibility is that current city and school district employees, who would be displaced from their jobs, would have to commit a crime in order to keep that position.

But even as the prison officials admitted to the audience that these were very hardened criminals, the townsfolk stood up one by one reassuring each other that these weren't real felons, they were just "technical violators" of parole. Besides, they kept reiterating, their water bills would go down at the same time they got their potholes filled for free.

After that night I became the object of the town's ire. Since I was the most vocal opponent of this pre-parole facility, a local newspaper accused me of being a "member of the anti-government movement." People who were my friends would no longer speak to me. My children were maligned at school. Even a member of the school board refused to sit near me at a school board meeting. Rumors began spreading about me, accusing me of everything from being a gun-totin' militia mama to being a Satan worshipper because I used the Internet. A woman who was helping me fight the facility awoke one morning to learn that her barn, which housed all the building material for her new home, had been torched.

I don't have the typical NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude. I do contend that this type of facility with these types of felons, many of them child-predators, should not be located within 10 miles of a school. The children of Texas deserve to feel safe and secure in school, and should not have to worry about what crime was committed by guy changing the light bulb in home room.

I have lived in this area nearly all my life. I knew the people could be hard-headed and unreasonable and sometimes downright loony. I knew they could be racist and sexist, and do it all in the name of God. I didn't know they would turn into a virtual lynch mob. I didn't know that when they failed to intimidate me, they would turn their venom on my children,. And do it all with the blessing of the local newspaper.

Oddly, it's these same folks who yell the loudest that they want more and more of these profit-producing prisoners executed, complaining that they spend entirely too much time on Death Row.

This summer my town proved to me that the root of all evil is indeed money. And a lower water bill, of course.

Carol Countryman is a troublemaker -- but not a militia mama -- in Tool, Texas.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1997 The Progressive Populist