Prison nation neighborhood

El Paso County correctional facilitiesI took a detour to meander along Las Vegas Road today, and got to see a Prison Nation.
Las Vegas is a notorious turn off to the middle of nowhere, but smack in the middle. It’s possible to take major roads on every side and never know what you missed. It runs along Fountain Creek, home of the water treatment plant, car part junkyards, used tire stores, piles of construction aggregate, and the county jail.
(On this satellite picture, the vehicle impound lot is at 11, juveniles are kept at 3, the half-way facility is at 5, and the County Jail is at 8 and 9.)

I’d forgotten about the jail until I saw the peaks of a big white circus tent in front of the main jail. I remembered that the El Paso Sheriff had taken the controversial step to house his surplus detainees in a tented extension, of dubious comfort during the summer and winter temperature extremes.

I drove on but it began to appear that the chain link and concertina wire kept on and on. To the right, a building even taller than the jail. At first you notice the pedestrian areas are fenced in, completely, like a polar bear requires at the zoo. Then you see that the windows are only slits, if they’re real at all. The buildings are almost always brick. Then on the other side of the street is something else again, behind wire, then this side again.

Finally I saw, at the edge of this development, what looked to be an ordinary townhouse complex but with each yard chained to batting cage height. Were these residents trying to keep potential escapees out of their yards? Then I observed a designation as a halfway program. I could see heads congregating, several to a room. I thought if I pulled over to watch it would look like I was a getaway car.

My friend Wade told me some time back, “Eric, they’re expanding the jail. I’ve got to get out of Dodge.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking his paranoia was in jest.

“Because when there’s more room in the jail, guys like me know nothing good is going to come of it.”

Wade, not his real name, suffers mental health difficulties and gets caught occasionally in drug enforcement and loitering sweeps. He was arrested once at 7-11 during their Voice Off promotion. He wouldn’t stop.

What are guys -not like Wade- to make of a detention facility system whose capacity has been outpacing the regional population rise in general? Can any of us ignore the implication to the judicial system posed by available beds, in need of fee paying inmates?

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