“We’re going to the State Pen,” Dad said one night as he waited for Mom to finish filling his soup bowl and buttering his bread.
“The Pen?” my brother Matt asked. “What for?”
“We’re gonna chop their alfalfa. They didn’t get enough to bale, but they need to clear the fields so it doesn’t ruin the next cutting. We’re gonna do it. I’m gonna go talk to’em tomorrow about it; there’s a lot of restrictions.”
The next night at supper he was full details. “They didn’t want to let you girls in,” he told Mom, Sally, and me. “There haven’t been any women contract workers inside for over fifteen years—only the guards. But I told’em, ‘You haven’t met my girls. They’ll be fine. They’re my crew, and if they can’t do it, I can’t either.’ The warden talked to a few people, and they finally said it was okay, but there are some rules.”
“What rules?” asked Sally nervously.
“You can’t go into any building without a guard. There’s a bathroom in the dairy barn, but if you need to use it you have to get a guard first. No talking to prisoners. They’re not going to be allowed in the fields we’re cutting. There’s to be no contact. Absolutely none. And no provocative clothing.”
I wondered if he was joking. I was frightened at the very thought of being inside the prison compound, with no walls between me and thousands of dangerous men, and what with one thing and another our wardrobes were the very definition of ‘non-provocative.’
Still, though, Sally and I made a special effort. The day we started work at the Pen we dressed for the occasion by donning long-sleeved flannel shirts, buttoning them up to our necks and around our wrists, pulling bib overalls and then coveralls on, braiding our hair tightly, and stuffing it up under John Deer “gimme” caps. It would have been funny, if it weren’t over a hundred degrees out, and our trucks un-airconditioned. We were boiling hot, but we felt safer for our camouflage.
We drove our unlikely caravan up to the massive concrete walls and stopped at the heavily barred gates. Guards with guns stared down at us. Dad got out of the pickup and walked up to the guardhouse. Uniformed men carrying what looked like machine guns came out. They walked toward the trucks. I gripped the wheel nervously. Dad stepped up on the running board.
“They’re gonna search the trucks,” he said. “The scale’s outside the walls, so you’ll have to stop each time you go weigh, pick up a guard, have him ride to the scales with you, and drop him off on the way back. They have to be sure we’re not smuggling anything in.” I opened my door, dropped to the ground, and watched as the guard poked around in the dust, alfalfa leaves, and desiccated chopped corn that had accumulated under my seat. To my mortification, his probing turned up an unexpected mummified mouse. He sneezed, buried the mouse again, and backed out, satisfied. “It’s clean. Go on in.”
I hastily shoved the mouse corpse out the door with a gloved hand, then climbed back into my truck and pulled it into gear. The massive gates swung open and we chugged through, then waited for Dad to get back into the pickup and lead us to where the prison farm foreman waited. Men were everywhere. They turned as we drove in, gaped, and called to other men who came running and gaped, too. I pulled my John Deer cap down to my eyebrows and drove by, trying not to look at all the murderers, robbers, arsonists, and rapists. And around us all, on the high towers, stood the guards, staring down at us, machine guns at the ready.
We pulled up to the farm office. The warden came out, a gun holstered at his hip. He talked to Dad, who came back and told us, “Just follow the warden to the field. The bathroom’s in there—” he gestured to the dairy barn—“but you have to come here first and get a guard. Remember that. No going in buildings alone.”
Sally and I shook our heads. No, we wouldn’t go into any buildings alone. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, and robbers circled like sharks, keeping a safe distance, mindful of the guns overhead. Our caravan pulled out of the prison yard. Matt’s truck, pulling the bagger on the trailer, turned right and chugged out of sight around the dairy barn. Sally and I followed Dad and the warden’s pickups down a dirt road. The road wound out of the farmyard and past a massive gray building on the right. A huge yard, fenced with cyclone fencing and topped with tangled razor wire, ran beside the road on the left. Guards patrolled the perimeter. Inside men in blue denim shirts and jeans lounged, played basketball, and smoked. They looked up at the sound of our engines, stared, and ran for the fence.
“How do they know?” Sally asked, tugging nervously at her cap.
“I don’t know,” I answered, and tugged at my own, resolutely not looking at the crowd of men who now stood packed along the fence. We left the prison yard behind for a row of pigsties, then we were in familiar territory—fields. A cornfield came first, followed by a fallow field, and then the alfalfa field we would be cutting.
A man in a blue denim shirt and jeans drove a tractor in the fallow field. He stopped and stared as we drove by. Sally and I drove into the field and pulled up behind Dad, resolutely ignoring the man on the tractor. We unchained the chopper and Sally climbed into the high cab, fired it up, and backed it carefully onto the ground while Dad set the jacks and unhitched the trailer.
Matt drove up in the other truck, climbed into the idling chopper, shoved the throttle ahead, and we were off. Dad and the warden chatted by the field while we filled the trucks. The convict from the neighboring field climbed off his tractor and joined them. The three men talked until Sally’s truck was full, then the warden led her back to where the bagger was set up and Mom waited.
I pulled into the field and Matt filled my truck. I followed Dad’s pickup back to the bagger. Dad stayed to help Mom empty the trucks, and Sally, Matt and I were basically on our own. When I got back from dumping my truck I interrupted Matt and the convict from the fallow field, leaning against the chopper, talking. Sally said she saw the same thing. All day, Matt and the convict talked between trucks. When Sally or I showed up the convict hot-footed it back to his tractor. By the time we pulled up he was industriously tilling his field again.
The day heated. The alfalfa had been lying in the field for far too long. It chopped into a fine powder and coated us with light green-gray dust. The trips fell into a pattern: the fields, then the pigsties, then the prison yard with the watching men crowded along the fence, then the farm yard, then a wait if the guards were transporting a prisoner from the old prison to the new maximum security building, then the bagger—if the warden hadn’t asked for the load to be weighed—and then the whole trip in reverse. A guard rode with me the first time I took a load outside the walls to the scale, jouncing along on the passenger seat, gun in hand. He waited while I weighed the truck, then we jounced back. The next time he simply waved me through. The whole thing would have been monotonous, if it weren’t for the guns, the convicts gazing enthralled at pale green women completely encased in flannel and denim, and the pickup loads full of convict farm laborers.
The pickups—tiny Datsuns packed with men—seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time careening past the field we were cutting. When we met on the road the men filling the cabs and beds of the pickups and standing on the running boards grinned maniacally and nearly fell out of the trucks with the vigor of their waving. And then there was the jogger. The jogger never waved. He simply ran, every day, long, even, single-minded strides, his dog running with him, tongue lolling.
And, back at the field, there would be Matt and the convict. We learned his name was Reg. Reg told Matt he had been framed for armed robbery. The warden said Reg was in for murder. “Reg is a nice guy,” the warden told us. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer; his hands had to be registered as lethal weapons.” Reg was in prison because of a woman. “He just can’t stay away from her,” the warden told us. “Problem is, she cheats on’im, then he gets mad and loses his temper. Last time he took a swing at some guy made him jealous, and killed’im. So now he’s here.” He shook his head at the perfidy of the woman, forcing a nice guy like Reg to kill somebody and go to prison. “If he could just make a break, get away from her, he’d be all right.”
“But he said he was in for armed robbery, that he’d gotten drunk and was asleep in the car and the guys robbed a liquor store and—” Matt started.
“Son, in here they was all framed,” the warden said gently.
Every time I pulled into the field Reg would be ambling back to his tractor. Once Matt came over and swung up on my running board and stuck his head into my cab, grinning.
“Reg has been in here too long.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious.
“He said, ‘You’ve sure got some good looking sisters.”
I laughed. Sally and I, though we both cleaned up fairly well, were, if not frights in those days, certainly very, very plain. We had set out to be. Matt laughed with me. “Let’s go, ugly girl,” he teased. And away we went, still laughing.
That night at supper Sally and I were discussing the jogger. “I didn’t know they could have pets,” Sally said. “What is he, a special case?”
“Maybe he’s blind,” pondered Matt. “It’s nice that he gets to have his dog in prison with him.” Matt’s dog had been hit by a car a few years before, and he still missed him.
“But he runs. The dog follows him,” I objected. “He can’t be blind.”
“I’ll ask Reg,” Matt said. Reg had quickly become our authority on all things penal. Matt wasted no time. After my first trip he came over to my truck and said, “I found out about the jogger’s dog,” he said.
“And?” I asked.
“The jogger’s a mass murderer, in for life and then some. They let him run for exercise. The dog runs with him so they don’t have to send a guard. The dog’s been trained to kill him if he leaves the road.”
I lifted my eyes and looked up the road. The jogger ran by, strides long, even, powerful, looking neither to the right nor the left. The dog ran beside him, tongue lolling. I imagined him running, running, then leaping for the wall, hands tangling in the razor wire at the top, the dog savaging his back.
“Let’s go, ugly girl,” said Matt. We filled the truck and I started for the bagger. One of the farm pickups careened by. By this time I recognized the faces, though I had spoken to none of them. When they waved I waved back, lifting my hand nervously. At the bagger I sat in the truck, ran the chain belt unloader, and watched the convicts in the yard playing with a little black and white kitten. They had named it “Cop Car.” Cop Car looked fat and sleek. As I watched a prisoner picked him up and tickled his round little belly.
The day grew warmer. I had emptied my water jug, and now had to go to the bathroom. I held it for several trips, too embarrassed to ask a guard to take me to the restroom. I considered peeing in the field, but had no idea when or from which direction one of the convict pickups might come. Sally was in little better condition. Finally we gave up and went to the farm office together.
I knocked on the door. A guard stuck his head out. “Yeah?”
“We need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, red-faced.
“Just a sec.” He disappeared and then emerged, carrying his rifle. “Follow me.” Sally and I slunk through the pathway of prisoners in his wake, knowing that every person in the farmyard knew exactly where we were going, and why. At the door of the barn the guard stopped. “Everybody out!” he shouted.
Men filed out of the barn and lined up in two rows. The guard went down the rows, checklist in hand. When he was satisfied everyone was indeed outside he cocked his gun and led Sally and me past the gauntlet of eyes and into the barn. At a door halfway down the dim passageway he stopped, knocked, pushed the door open, and looked inside. “It’s clear,” he said. Then he turned his back and stood, feet apart, gun cocked and ready, while Sally and I scuttled into the filthy bathroom. We looked around nervously.
“We could get AIDS,” Sally said nervously. And what are those funny lights on the floor?” I tore my eyes off the filthy black sink and looked at the floor. Little circles of light lay everywhere. We looked up, tracking the lights to their source. The bathroom walls were full of bullet holes.
We had come too far to back out now. We raced through the process, dropping our pants, peeing from a safe distance above the seat, and foregoing washing our hands so we wouldn’t have to touch the filthy taps. I balanced on one foot and flushed the toilet with my boot. We opened the door to see the guard’s broad back. When he heard us he turned. “Finished?” he asked impassively, then led us back outside and to our trucks. Of everything I experienced at the penitentiary, going to the bathroom was the scariest.
It was easy to forget that the truckloads of men who smiled and waved at us were in many cases guilty of terrible crimes. We were farmers, working with other farmers, as we had for years. These farmers never spoke to us, but they talked to Matt, and to Mom—even though it was against the rules—and they waved. Sally and I soon thought nothing of waving back. The trips past the prison yard were the worst, though passing the new maximum security building with its narrow window slits was almost as bad. Matt told us that he had seen a face on one trip. The man had had to turn his head sideways to fit both eyes in the narrow window slit, but he had done it. He was looking out the window, watching us. After that whenever I passed the big concrete building with the neat little prison cemetery nearby I looked for faces.
I left the penitentiary a changed person. The convicts had become more than beasts in numbered denim shirts; they had become people. It was easy to forget their crimes. Even the mass murderer with his dog had lost his aura of terror—and I found that loss of fear more than a little frightening. Was I losing my natural survival instincts, or was I simply becoming more humane? I didn’t know.
We spoke of Reg often, laughing ruefully at Matt’s conviction that he had been imprisoned for too long if he could find us attractive. Early that fall Dad told us over supper that the prison had called again; we would be bagging their corn. We looked forward to going back and seeing the familiar faces grinning and waving from the racing pickups, to hearing what Reg had to tell Matt about prison life, to watching the prisoners play with Cop Car. Sally and I still dressed for the occasion in loose, concealing, aging clothing, but we only put on the John Deere caps when we drove past the prison yard.
We arrived on a crisp, cool morning. The guards saw us, opened the gate, and waved us in. We roared past and out to the field, looking for the racing pickups full of convicts. The pickups were there, but the faces had changed. Reg still chugged around the fallow field in his tractor. “That has to be the best-tilled field in the state,” Sally and I joked, but we were relieved to see him there. Maybe he could tell us what had happened.
Matt filled my truck and I made the trip to the bagger, passing Sally on the return trip, as usual, and arriving at the field to see Reg jogging for his tractor. Matt waited for me to stop, then swung up on my running board and said, “A bunch of’em got sent back inside the walls.” “The Walls” was how the convicts referred to maximum security.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were growing pot in the cornfield and the guards caught’em.”
“Really? In the prison cornfield?” I snickered.
Matt chuckled along with me. “Yeah. Sally and I found their little garden on our last pass. It was sort of sweet, really. There was a watering can, and a blue shirt. One of the guys must have been out peacefully tending his little garden when they caught him.” The image of the convict gardener tenderly caring for his pot plants, nurturing them lovingly amid the cornstalks until the guards came crashing in like Demon Kings, struck me funny. The sheer gall it would take to do such a thing in a prison farm awed me. Matt and I started across the field. Sure enough, deep in the heart of the cornfield was a little clearing, trampled corn, a little tin watering can, and a twisted blue denim shirt. We left it as a sort of memorial, though to what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps initiative. Perhaps quiet rebellion. I missed the familiar faces.
Cop Car had grown into a teenage cat, and no longer liked to have his tummy tickled. His convict owner had been released. The days passed hot, sticky, and long, even though it was fall. And then one day everything went wrong. It was hot and still. The prisoners in the medium security prison yard stood by the fence, staring and hooting at Sally and me. The chopper kept plugging. I had to go to the bathroom, but was too embarrassed to ask the guard to take me. My head and neck ached. Sweat stung the in scratches on my hands and arms. Early in the afternoon I pulled into the bagger, engaged the chain drive, and waited for the truck to unload. Dad was operating the bagger. I wondered where Mom was, but then she appeared at my door, a plastic bag full of little ice cream and orange sherbet cups in her hands.
“Here,” she said.
“I didn’t know anybody’d been to town,” I said, surprised. I took one, peeled the top back, and let the icy goodness slide down my throat.
“Nobody was. Reg stole them from the prison cafeteria for us. Here, take some more; there’s a whole bag. And take some out to Matt.”
I choked. My mother was knowingly giving me stolen ice cream. “He ripped them off? From the prison cafeteria?” The thought of Reg risking getting sent back inside the walls for ice cream cups horrified me.
“He just handed them to me and said, ‘You guys look awful hot out here.’ What was I gonna do, tell him to take’em back?” She laughed ruefully. I ate the ice cream gratefully and took several out to Matt, who reacted much as I had—first with shock, then with laughter at the sheer improbability of it.
But the laughter wasn’t the end of it. Those ice cream cups made me question myself. Would I have thought to bring ice cream to the convict farm workers, hot as it was? I doubted it. I hadn’t really seen past the number-stamped denim shirts, the guard towers, the razor wire fences, the guns, the dog trained to kill a running man. I had been thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” convicts, who slept within walls here, and free contract workers, who slept within walls half an hour away. Where was the difference? Reg’s ice cream cups said, “There is none.” They spoke of our common humanity, rather than our putative differences. “There is no “us,” they said, “there is no ‘them.’ There are only people, some kind, some terrifying, most a mixture.”
As a general rule people don’t get into the Washington State Penitentiary for parking violations. Most of the people there had done some very bad things. Reg himself was in for murder. I had always believed that it was right and proper that dangerous people be locked away from the rest of us. But then I thought of the ice cream cups, and I realized it wasn’t quite that simple anymore. I could no longer simply write off men behind bars as “them.” Instead, it had become “we,” hungry, thirsty, hot people, who felt better for the kindness of a little stolen ice cream. “Us” and “them” had become moving points, defining the person using them more than the people defined.
I would have liked to have thanked Reg, but the rules were there, and there for a reason. “Tell him thank you,” I told Matt.
“Will do,” he said. “Let’s go, Ugly Girl.” Then he swung up into his cab, still licking ice cream off his little wooden spoon, shoved the header into gear, grinned, licked his ice cream again, and we roared across the field and past the forlorn garden. The mass murder and his dog jogged by. Reg puttered around in his fallow field. Everything looked the same—and utterly different.
Read Full Post »