Monday, November 10, 2003

Something There is That Doesn't Love a Wall

They're building a new county prison on the high valley floor, along the new interstate. I know the reasons and the finances and the necessities, but there's something that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down, and I can't be happy about our new public possession. This is a rural county turned, by slow starts and glacial shifts, suburban or even urban. The old "prison" isn't more than a little pen - a tiny one-story lockup on the hill behind the courthouse, as modest and anonymous as the enclosed concrete reservoir, the next hill over. It long since has ceased to be useful for the purposes that the county would put it to. They've been sending the prisoners to do hard time at Rockview, with the hard prisoners of the rest of this hard state. My inner miser agrees with my inner liberal that it's expense piled on disproportion and injustice. We need this new county prison. And yet I cannot celebrate the raising of walls.

Rockview is a strange fact, a compound of misery, deprivation and state-slavery in the heart of a beautiful, achingly wonderful valley. It once was an agrarian experiment in rehabilitation. The prisoners would grow their own crops, feed themselves, find redemption in hard work under the soft glare of a gentle northern sun. I don't know the history of how that idealism fell by the wayside, but all that's left of the prisoner-farmers of Rockview are a few orchard-tenders and the brown-uniformed work gangs that cut the warden's grass, clear rocks from fields, and maintain the facilities. The guards stand watch on horse-back, shotgun in hand, over the mostly-black work-gangs. It's hard to forget the prices we pay for our law and order with something like that in the heart of the valley.

The new prison is on Rockview land, or it was once. I know I've seen the work-gangs on that plot, clearing rocks from what was, at the time, cropland. It's sometimes a bit difficult to identify where the prison lands leave off and the neighboring farms take up. The local farmers lease the fields that the prisoners once worked, and sometimes the only way you can spot the difference is by seeing which fields have work details clearing the inevitable limestone and dolemite rubble turned up by a recent tilling. Since the land was taken by eminent domain from the same families that now lease them back for the farming of it, I suppose it all works round in the end.

The county jail is going to be right on Benner Pike, at the corner of Rishel Hill Road. Rishel Hill was a nice country-lane, working its way up from the Axemann road, over Logan Run and the rail tracks, between a gas tank farm and an auto wrecking yard on the left and an ancient, dying stone wall on the left. Once you climb out of the ravine, you come into private farmland, rotating soybeans and corn from one side of the road to the other on alternating years. The family on that road has young children - you could occasionally see a schoolbus turning around in their narrow yard between the barn and the house, picking the kids up. I wonder what it will be like for those kids when the time comes and their nearest neighbors are prison guards and felons. For several years I took Rishel Hill to work. It was more calming and easy-going than the hectic stress of Benner Pike in the morning. I've stopped doing so, in avoidance of the construction mess. I doubt I'll be going back once they're done. Good fences may make good neighbors, but I can't celebrate the building of walls.

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