The sky at night, is orange and bright

Column by Hal Walter

Prisons – October 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Those of us foolish enough to think we are regional intellectuals have found it entertaining to snobbishly describe other Colorado locales as “sacrifice zones.” We’ve made up cute names for these places — The Front Strange, I-70 Industrial Tourism Ghetto, Christian Springs.

I’ll plead guilty to coining some of these nuances which often turn up in my own writings as statements of Central Colorado provincialism.

But have you ever noticed that nobody ever builds a new prison in one of these places we’re joking about? It’s called a “clean” industry, but it’s never proposed in a sanitary place, like Boulder’s Greenspace. Likewise, you can bet there’ll never be a prison between Breckenridge and Frisco, or at the Broadmoor.

Prisons — clean industry or not — are businesses that get located in places deemed by some to be less than desirable, like down the river in Ordway or Florence . . . or up the river in Fairplay or Buena Vista.

Among the things that have soured me on this region in the last seven years is the increasing amount of yellow-orange light cast from prisons. A former benefit of life in the mountains was to be able to see the stars, unobscured by man-made light. Now I can go out walking around here and see just fine by the glow from the Cañon City/Florence Industrial Prison and Utility Company Corporate Welfare Project, 30 miles away.

It’s just not right how the stars have faded into the amber pall.

On nights when the sky is right I can see from my back porch an amber glow from the Buena Vista prison. Usually this occurs when there is low cloud cover over the prison and clear skies here. What I’m actually seeing is the light reflected off the clouds. Some people I tell this to refuse to believe me. But I swear it’s true.

A few years ago people in Buena Vista complained about these lights. Reflectors were installed to keep the glow pointed earthward. I’m sure this helped somewhat, but I can still see the glow here, 90 miles away. I think the light now bounces off the ground and then back up into the clouds.

These lights are annoying, but the real issue isn’t so much the amber holes in our sky as it is the bad energy of the industrial prison machine. Every time I see those lights, I am reminded of the vindictiveness that has come to define our nation — the odd popular notion that injustices of the past are remedied by taking away the culprit’s future right now.

Eastern religions, martial-arts philosophies, and the new agers, who the great writer Jim Harrison calls “the bliss-ninnies,” tell us that we can’t change the past or do anything about it, because the past doesn’t exist. The only thing we can change is the present. If they’re right, the notion of punishment is pretty much an exercise in futility.

It’s about as logical as the political messages of the Christian “Right,” who admonish us to take an “eye for an eye,” but seldom remind us to “forgive those who trespass against us.” Our society interprets the Bible to suit its purposes. We forgive the rich who trespass against us. Mostly, we take the “eyes” of poor minorities.

These prisons are run by something called the Department of Corrections. The implication here is that we are correcting the behavior of some individuals. Most people think we’re trying to punish past injustices, but the real intention is to do something in the present that improves the future of both law-abiding citizens and the people who commit crimes.

Society’s best intentions always get twisted anytime there’s money to be made. Now the average prison guard makes a bigger salary in this country than the average school teacher, and we just don’t get it when our children regress from high-school dropouts to penitentiary inmates. Crafty business is often bad karma.

It would be hard to change most folks’ mindset on this topic. So let’s get back to the original gripe — why do the prisons need all those damned lights?

Maybe I saw too many Hogan’s Heroes reruns when I was a kid, but it seems to me that illuminating the razor wire would give inmates better light by which to escape. Plus, for the cost of the electricity, why don’t they just order up some night vision devices from the Cabela’s catalog? New toys for the guards — they range in price from $349.95 to $1,899.99.

Here’s another idea — the flyer I got in the mail from an area ranch-supply store a few weeks ago had an electric fence charger that ran off a 6-volt battery and would make 10 miles of fence unattractive to livestock for about $60.

But the point here is not to save money. After all, it’s not like the Department of Corrections is paying the light bill.

We are.

The sad economic reality of prisons is that they aren’t being built to prevent crime so much as they are to line pockets with public revenues. The lights may help keep the criminals in, but that’s probably not the primary consideration.

The real logic behind building more prisons is pork-barrel economics. Certainly there’s a lobby — organized or not — representing businesses that benefit from prison growth.

Moreover, our government definitely profits. Americans may be sick of government spending, but they’ll still back crime bills. A trend toward downsizing, a demand for tax cuts, and the Bruce Amendment could theoretically leave our bureaucrats strapped for cash — but crime pays.

Our representatives push legislation to get prisons built and keep them overfilled, and they back insane laws like mandatory- and minimum-sentencing requirements and “three strikes and you’re out.” Laws like these keep judges from doing the jobs we hired them to do, and assure a growing supply of “fresh meat” for the industrial prison complex.

A recent addition to the population of violent felons in Colorado as a result of one of these ridiculous measures is a metro-area youth who struck a playmate during a schoolyard scuffle. Now, as a convicted felon, he can’t return to school. Get tough on crime, indeed — in the seventh grade I once was paddled for my part in a similar case.

The forces behind these laws are shining you on with a big yard light if you believe they’re doing something about crime other than turning a public buck. In another place and time these business tactics would be called fraud, racketeering, bilking taxpayers, and bribing public officials.

But in this country crime and punishment has become business as usual.

Hal Walter, a man who some say should face charges of impersonating a journalist, has somehow avoided both a real job and a life of crime much of his adult life by writing for magazines.