so bitter when they come here. They don’t take advantage of their opportunities on the outside, and in this restricted atmosphere they don’t see any reason to take advantage of them here.” Lee Otis.. . Tennessee Colony East Texas has the feel of Mississippi. The land is flat and red in places. The small towns are rusting to death. Ramshackle dwellings stand at half-collapse, and black farm workers bend over the soil. The air is not fetid or musky. But when a waft finds its way up one’s unanticipating left nostril, the experience is like breathing a breath that must have been breathed on that same spot a hundred years ago. It is air that hangs in space. The traveler cannot take it with him. And when he has been gone too long from the area, he forgets the air, the red land, the rusty towns, and the weathered shacks. It is not so easy to forget the black field hands, for East Texas has a racist reputation as old and permanent as its air. And a reputation is portable by its very nature. So is racism. So is a black man. In a roundabout way, that was how I found myself driving toward Palestine Texas’s parody of a New Jerusalem in the East. An extremely portable black man had been transferred near there from a Houston-area prison. I was on my way to see him. Two hours of uneventful driving had passed when suddenly, in a field to the right, I saw several birds swooping in lazy circles over some poor animal carcas. They were black birds, vulture-like in their patience. It was as if they knew the bone-picking would come in due time. Three more times before reaching the prison I saw black birds dipping and diving slowly from similar circles. A coincidence’? A welcoming committee? T HAD TAKEN three weeks to set the interview. And even as my car neared the prison gate, I was half-expecting some unforeseen development to force a new delay. Already my request to see the black prisoner had been denied, granted, denied, granted, postponed and reset by various wardens and officials. Mr. Adams is a graduate student in American Civilization at UT-Austin. He did his undergraduate work at Texas Christian University, where he was editor of the student newspaper. As if on cue, a 50-year-old man in gray uniform with blue lapels and cuffs halted me at the prison entrance. His squinting gray eyes looked over the car’s backseat. Any guns or liquor? he asked. No, only an interview, I said. He motioned me forward. A hundred yards down the road a second guard this one perched in a tower asked more questions, via a loud speaker device like those used at some hamburger drive-ins. He added cameras and narcotics to the other guard’s list of prohibitions. Then he pointed to the warden’s office, inside the high wire fence. L. G. Bounds looked not a bit like the Cool-Hand-Luke kind of warden. He wore a modest suit with a modest tie. He could have passed for a country preacher. Actually, he said, he was a former teacher, coach and soldier who got “conned” into becoming a warden. The pun was unintentional and it went unacknowledged. He spoke carefully about his job: “My only concern is to get the inmates out and back into society. Getting them to work and behave is no problem. I don’t worry about that. I just worry that they’ll leave and come back. “A prisoner can come in here unskilled, and if he takes advantage of what we provide, he can learn how to work in construction, sheet metal, electronics, sewer treatment, food service, janitorial work, or farming. Why, he can even become a doctor, a lawyer, a chaplain or a teacher if he takes advantage of our educational services. He can get a high school equivalency diploma even take college courses from professors who visit. “We let the prisoners attend our school here one day a week for six hours. Some inmates who came in illiterate just took 90 days to progress to the third or fourth grade level. They can write letters and read newspapers now. We have every kind of vocational education and job that you can find on the main street of Houston. We do everything ourselves. And if the inmates just get motivated they can get a skill and go back into society. It’s motivation that’s our problem, because so many of them are BOUNDS SIPPED thoughtfully at the edge of his coffee cup and then pointed to a picture on the wall. He said, “That’s an artist’s impression of the new prison we’re building now. It’ll hold 2,000 inmates instead of the 500 we have now. It’ll be the best prison in the world open courtyards, no heavy saw-proof bars, lots of glass and individual cells for the prisoners. It would cost $90 million to build on the outside, but it’ll only cost us about $9 million, I think now, I wouldn’t want to be quoted on that because I’m not sure on the figures, but it’s something like that. It’ll be the finest prison in the world.” He smiled now, more at ease than at first. He smiled especially when he looked at the architect’s watercolor prison. Then he spoke again: “I want to apologize if I sounded a little harsh when I said I wouldn’t let you have the interview. I’ve never had anyone phone and ask to interview an inmate before. We’ve had writers out here to do stories on the prison. And we have an open policy about the press you know, this is a public institution and all that. So when Dr. Beto [the head of Texas’ Department of Corrections] told me he was granting the interview over my objection, I naturally had to agree.” [Dr. George Beto was none to happy to grant the interview. He told an Observer editor that the press is “using” Lee Otis and that Lee Otis is “beginning to resent it.” Beto said that personally he could see no reason why a reporter would want to interview Johnson.] “Of course,” Bounds went on to say, “if it was my decision I still wouldn’t let you see the inmate. I don’t believe in subjecting the prisoners to any influences that might keep them from fitting back into society. I just don’t want these social misfits and that’s what they are, or else they wouldn’t be here to end up here again after they’re released. You know, they have to learn to follow the rules of the ball game, and I don’t want them influenced any way that might make them break the law again.” He smiled across the desktop. “You know what I mean,” he said confidentially. “Now I suppose you’re ready to see the prisoner?” I confessed that was true, so he lifted the black telephone receiver, punched a button, and spoke quickly, with a minimum of words, as if used to giving orders: “Send that boy in now. Johnson. Yes, Lee Otis.” 2 The Texas Observer Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life You were only waiting for this moment to arise. –Lennon/McCartney By Michael V. Adams
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