Youth is wasted on the poor.

Winter arrived this morning before dawn and with it a great ominous sadness.  This whole trip seems like an anachronism, a ritzy Jazz Age speakeasy in a cold Depression night.  When we booked the Antarctica cruise it seemed like history might work out all right somehow, but everyone has always known that this could never be true.

I drove six and a half hours to see my friend David in prison in Texas on Saturday morning, and back on Saturday night.  He tells many stories, which saves me the trouble of watching TV shows involving buff guys who live and use swear words in cells the size of conference rooms.

My rental car and I were searched upon entering the Dalhart facility, which hadn’t happened the last time I visited, in June.  Apparently sometime during the summer, a cell phone was discovered on Death Row and someone alleged that threatening calls had been made from it.

“The guards came into the day room and said, ‘Statewide lockdown.  Everyone to your cells.’  Twelve days!  The guards hate it.  They actually have to work, doing everything the inmates usually do.  Making sandwiches,” said David.

David gets in trouble only for the things that prisoners constantly get in trouble for: fighting and name-calling and objecting.  The fighting doesn’t happen so much up in Dalhart, because it is a prison tending toward the nonviolent and old.  Lots of drug and sex offenders.  Before he came to Dalhart, he was getting jumped occasionally.    When he talks about the prisons near Houston and San Antonio he says “Down South”, just like somebody from Massachusetts talking about Texas.

“There’s a lot more fighting down south.”

When there is a fight, the participants get written up for the offense regardless of who started it.

He hasn’t had any major cases lately.  The distinction between a major and a minor appears to be, that a minor case can result in some loss of privilege such as commissary or recreation,  while a major case is all of that, plus it will show up on your record at your next parole hearing.  A “minor” does not affect your release date.  There can be a prison mock court to determine what happened, if the warden cares to hold one.

Even a Major is not visible to the criminal justice system from the outside.  He told the story of a guy who is 35 days from release, having served “all days” (I think that was the expression) and refused the order of a new guard, a woman just immigrated from Nigeria, to stop sitting on his coat.

Apparently there is a rule that you can’t sit on your coat.  I was told by the guard to place my hat on the chair when I went to the vending machines.  They are ungodly concerned about contraband going back and forth.

Anyway, the prisoner talked back to the guard, and she said that he assaulted her when he stood up, which the 30 other people in the day room denied.  My friend in telling this story implied that they would all deny it anyway; but the important thing was that they all told the same story when questioned.  The case was eventually dropped, but the illustrative point was that even if he’d had to serve his last thirty five days in solitary, there wasn’t anything the prison could do to delay his release even if it was a major, because it wasn’t a parole release, it was the end of his sentence.

We had just watched “Persepolis” on DVD in Denver Thursday night, the cartoon story of a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran.  The parallels were striking, between being a woman in Iran and a man in a minimum security prison camp in the far reaches of Texas: a life completely hemmed in and defined by the mood of mostly young and mostly inexperienced men who vary unpredictably in temperament from mean to intermittently sympathetic, and in intelligence from stupid to capable.

David is sad about growing old in prison but he recognizes that he has health care, such as it is, which nobody else in his family or in the families of the other inmates has, and realizes that if he were outside, his situation would be on the very edge of physical survival.

It’s incorrect to say that the people in Dalhart never had a chance,  but it would have taken more effort for them to rise above their destiny than most of us have put in.  It is possible in America to rise from the poor classes to the middle classes or higher, but it costs you your childhood.  All the years when the other kids are hanging and dating and playing football, a poor kid has to be striving by any means necessary, to have any real chance of not dying poor.  Everything you hear about the magic of Being Young is really the magic of being Young and Rich, or having at least some money, or not caring if you ever do, or having no hope of changing your situation.

It was pretty watching the sun rise and set in New Mexico.  The weather was clear and cold.  Freezing and windy in Texas, and well below freezing and still, in Denver.