From the author: A chilling look at the future of the prison industrial complex
It was William Kerry’s Induction Day. For the next two years he would be serving his time in Willamette Prison of Salem, a private run institution. Two years of jail time, the toll for any American born after 2023. Danny smiled at William’s mother, Karen, when she opened the door.
“Do you mind if I record this?” Danny set the handheld down on the kitchen table. The Formica was cold to the touch. Everything was. A ten below morning in Polton, Oregon.
“I guess. If you have to,” Mrs. Kerry said. Her breath formed a cloud in the low light of the kitchen. Bearlike in her bathrobe, she gave Danny a long side-eye and poured a cup. She didn’t seem bothered by the cold. Her young would be here soon and she intended to protect him.
“Coffee?” She asked.
“Please. If you don’t mind.”
She sat down at the table and slid a cup Danny’s way. The red clip indicator light blipped on the recorder. Mrs. Kerry looked at it and shook her head slightly.
“Will and the kids should be showing up soon. Take a seat,” she said.
“Thanks,” Danny said as he sat.
“He never even got into trouble,” Mrs. Kerry said, “He had plenty of chances to though.” She laughed a bit to herself and looked at some point just beyond Danny’s world.
“Have you taken any of the preparatory classes?” Danny asked.
“Yeah. A few. Lady from the Prisoner Advocacy Center came by with some books too.”
“Do you feel that they were helpful?”
“The books? Sure. Three hundred pages of experts telling me that we need more money if we’re going to get through this. Never would have thought of that myself.”
“This must be very tough for you. I’m really sorry. I’ve always opposed the…”
“Yeah. Well. It’s tough on everyone.” She said as she stood, “Excuse me. I need to get ready before they get here. TV over there if you want to watch. Help yourself to more coffee. Going to be a long day.”
Mrs. Kerry made her way down the hall and Danny was alone in the kitchen with the cold light and the hum of the fridge. He turned off the recorder and waited. Will Kerry, age 22, would be pulling up any minute. He’d be joined by his kids, Martin and Alicia. Martin was 5. Alicia 2. The kids would have their bags full of toys, clothes, pictures, and whatever was left of Will’s money.
Danny took a sip of now tepid coffee and waited for the sounds of barking dogs and gravel. The mouth of the hallway was just visible to him. Peering out of the dark were the faces of the Kerrys past and present. Will. The kids. A black and white shot of a man in overalls with sunken eyes. A group of women with identical haircuts (short, functional, peroxided, and un-moveable) smiled in front of a pale blue backdrop.
Danny could hear Mrs. Kerry swear to herself as she searched her closet for something. Generations ago, the Kerrys had fled ruin and despair only to face poverty and a lie about a Promised Land called California. They persevered though, many moving north. They fought through and some of their descendants found success. Most did not. Diaspora, of sorts, in their own nation. A fall, rise, and fall seemingly independent of the rest of the nation as a whole. But even they were better off than some.
The sound of Will’s truck filled the silence. The engine cut and doors opened and slammed shut. Danny stood just as the front door opened. Will and the kids came in. The kids looked sleepy and Will was a thousand miles away. He stuck out his hand, but his voice was coming from somewhere deep in his own worry.
“You must be Danny,” he said.
“Nice to finally meet you. “
“Yeah. You too,” Will let out a laugh, “I guess.”
“I know. It’s not the best circumstances, but I really appreciate you letting me tell your story.”
“Yeah. Hey Marty, why don’t you help your sister put her stuff away?”
Martin led his sister by the hand down the hall, his backpack looking far too big for him. In fact, it seemed kind of amazing that he was able to manage it as well as he did.
“Kid’s strong,” Danny said.
“Pretty much have to be out here. But, yeah. He’s a good kid too. Going to miss them.”
Will made his way to the kitchen to get some coffee.
“Are my babies here?” Mrs. Kerry yelled from somewhere down the hall, “Better get in here and give me some sugar!” All the terseness and anger had left her voice. This was Grandma.
Will and Danny sat at the table.
“So. How was your stint?” Will asked.
“I didn’t have one. Born in ’20,” Danny said.
“Lucky for you,” he said and took a sip from his cup.
Danny held up the recorder. Will nodded his head and leaned back in his chair. Danny hit record and the red light was once again on.
“What did you do for work?” Danny asked.
“Well, I was at the mill before it closed down. That was a good job. Lately I been working for this guy. Painting houses mostly.”
“Has your boss said anything about being able to come back once you’re out?”
“Nah,” Will scoffed, “That’s shit for people who don’t need it. Those of us that actually need our jobs? Too bad.”
Danny knew that was going to be the answer. The SERA act had a provision that required companies with over 100 employees to hold positions open for those that had to take a leave of absence to serve. Smaller companies were under no such obligation. Some tried, but they were rare.
“I know that you’re leaving the kids here with your mom. Do you have any other support for them?”
“No. She’s it. I got a brother and sister, but I wouldn’t count on either. He’s a meth head and she’s not well right now.”
“Sorry to hear that. Hopefully nothing serious.”
“Mental issues. Can’t afford help and she’s paranoid. Sometimes she’s ok. Then she loses it. Been on the street a few times. Not even sure where she’s at,” Will scratched the back of his head and took a deep breath.
“Have you been able to take any of the prep classes? I know your mom has a bit. Talk to any friends that have been through it?”
“Oh yeah,” Will said, “The classes helped. You know. What to say, what not to say. What to expect. Good buddy of mine from work took me out for a few beers a while back and laid it all out for me too. I feel as prepared as I can be.”
“What do you think about the SERA act and has your opinion changed now that your Induction Day is here?” Danny asked.
“I’ve always thought it was bullshit,” Will said, “Doubly so now. How am I supposed to give a damn about ‘overall economic strength and dominant culture’ when I have mouths to feed and nothing on the horizon? I mean none of that shit is real when you’re looking at two little ones and yourself and you have to choose who’s getting dinner tonight, right?”
“And the idea that we’re ‘all’ in this mess together? Ha. You see who they’re pulling in for this shit, right? It isn’t the kids and grandkids of anyone rich and famous, I’ll tell you that. They took the ghettos and trailer parks and threw them behind bars. Hell, all this new law did was speed up the process those bastards have been doing for years!” Will was yelling now and punctuating with his hands.
“Language. Little pitchers have big ears,” came from the back of the house.
“Sorry, mom. You see what I’m saying, right?”
“I do and that’s why I’m writing this article,” Danny said, “If you don’t mind my asking, what about the children’s mother?”
“Michelle? Fucking cancer. Last year. Told everyone that she skipped chemo as she didn’t want to have to lose Alicia. Truth was, we couldn’t afford it anyway. I don’t want to talk about it, all right?”
“No problem. I’m really sorry.”
Danny stepped outside while the Kerrys prepared themselves the best they could for what came next. It’d be a long drive down the mountain on snow-covered roads to the bus station. The miles would be hard fought. Of course, for the Kerrys, the drive could never be long enough considering what was waiting at the end of the highway.
He looked out toward the vacant lot across the dirt road. There was a pile of gravel mounded up in the middle of the lot. Weeds had somehow grown through the rocks and were now dead and brown. There were patches of snow frozen into a quilt wrapped around the whole thing. The screen door popped open behind Danny.
“I’m serious now,” Mrs. Kerry said in a firm, but loving tone. Danny could tell that she’d never cut a switch to spank the kids in her life, but she wasn’t above letting the kids think it might be a possibility. You don’t mess with the bear.
Martin made his way to the rusty old minivan that sat outside the garage full of canned goods and Christmas decorations. He slid the rear door open and pulled himself inside, nearly toppling over. He climbed across the center console and plopped into the driver’s seat. Even though he was barely tall enough to reach the gas pedal and the starter at the same time, he turned the key and the van coughed.
Martin hit it again and the van protested some more. On the third try, it took and the old beast finally woke up. Danny thought about how he was still flooding his old hard-to-start Subaru back in his twenties and here this kindergartener was already more adept than he was. Hell, he still went by “Danny” and he had more gray hair than not.
The rest of the family trundled out of the house and Martin slid back to the bench seat behind the driver’s. “I’ll follow you guys down,” Danny said but no one seemed to hear.
Forty minutes later they were pulling into the parking lot. The train station was a simple platform rather than a proper station. Danny stood a respectful distance from the Kerry family while they waited. His back turned to, he could barely hear their farewells and tearful promises over the icy wind. In the distance, the black dot of the approaching train grew as it lumbered closer.
“Okay, man.” Danny felt a tap on his shoulder.
Danny turned around. Will tried to smile a bit and stuck out his hand. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Yeah, man. Be safe. I hope it goes quickly for you and I’ll drop in on them from time to time. You have my email. Write me anytime, okay? The world won’t forget about you,” Danny said.
Will laughed and looked at the braking train. “Yeah. I kind of wish some of it would though.”
Danny made his way out to his car without looking back. The Kerrys were about to be center stage for the whole world to see. He wanted them to have one last private moment. He turned the key and pulled away.
The article was a gut punch. For years, there had been a rising resentment over the SERA act and how it was implemented. The rich being able to side step their service while the poor and minority groups were often held longer than their contractual sentences. And there were the deaths.
Danny sat down at the small table next to the waffle station in his latest temporary home. He was the only one to show up for the free continental breakfast. The lecture circuit was becoming a drag and this 3-star chain hotel was not doing him any favors. He looked down at his coffee in its Styrofoam cup. He could clearly see the manufacture’s stamp at the bottom. He wished he could go home. Four more stops.
His phone vibrated, but he ignored it. “I’m not on the clock yet,” he mumbled to himself. Whoever it was could be called back later. He shoveled some waffle into his mouth.
Danny had signed a book deal the day before. Politicians were citing his article when passionately calling for legislation to reform or end SERA. Every college in America wanted him to give a presentation or commencement speech. It was his all-time high. “I’d trade it all for some real syrup and my own sheets.”
His phone vibrated again. A short burst this time. Voicemail. Good. He could ignore that for a minute. He glanced around the room for a paper, but there wasn’t one. He left his tablet back in his room. So, he was stuck with TV.
The TV was stuck on one of the 24-hour news channels. The sound was muted, but Danny could tell whatever the talking head was going on about was very important. “Hey! Can we turn up the sound?” he shouted across the empty room. No reply. He dragged a chair across the room and stood up on it, his fingers barely able to hit the volume button.
“…riot in Willamette prison. Again, several officers are reported injured and at least one prisoner is dead.”
Danny blundered back. The warmth left the room. Footage of the prison exterior showed smoke coming from one window. There was a SWAT team assembling outside the gates. Chaos and blood. Somewhere in there was William Kerry. Danny’s phone vibrated. He took the call this time.
“Why the fuck aren’t you answering your phone?” Danny’s editor, Jill Mulcher, yelled at him. “You need to get down there. Now.”
“Yeah. Of course. Ok. Um. Shit. What about the thing today? The speech?”
“Screw that. I’ll send someone along to explain that you’re obviously still on the front lines of this thing. They’ll eat it up. Don’t worry. Get me that story.”
Danny ran to his car. Salem was only an hour away. His foot didn’t touch the break until he got to the prison parking lot. He found a space near the dozen or so TV crews that had beat him to the scene.
Danny tried to put his worry away. He knew that if he didn’t compartmentalize this shit, he’d lose it. After a minute, he found a guard outside the gate that looked like he was used to giving orders, but didn’t seem to be in the middle of giving any at that second.
“We know who you are,” the guard said. He didn’t seem happy about it.
“What can you tell me so far, Officer…?”
“Taylor. Sargent Taylor. Private Prison Security Forces. I can tell you that we have the situation under control. This will be over in an hour.”
“Ok. Good. Is there any way that I can get the name of the deceased? Off the record even?”
“You worried about your pal? Ha. It wasn’t him. Some other scumbag. An actual criminal. Does that ruin your human-interest story angle?”
“No,” Danny said, “I actually give a shit about what’s happening. The prison system is what ruined things here for humans.”
“Nice little speech. Can I tell you another thing off the record?”
“Yeah. Please do.”
“You have no friends here.”
Danny stepped away from the cop. He could probably call the Sherriff up and have the guy busted or demoted, but would most likely just get him a few free beers for telling off the commie journalist. If anything, he’d just get more crap. So, screw it. Wasn’t worth the hassle.
The officer was right, even if he was an asshole. Order was restored quickly. Danny dictated his write up into his phone and emailed the file over to Jill. It was your basic revolt over conditions and beatings. The rioting had become more common in the private prisons over the course of the last six months. Danny thought about Will inside, surely cut off from calling home now. Possibly being put in the hole for punishment. Who knows? It would be days before anyone from the outside to talk to him or even find out if he was ok. He thought about Mrs. Kerry and the kids. They were probably pretty freaked out. Polton was four hours away. He’d be there by dark. Maybe confirming that he at least heard that Will was alive would be good.
Mrs. Kerry opened the door a much older person that when Danny last saw her. She was no less formidable though. She was not one to back down from life. Even so, the events of the last sixteen months had worn on her.
“I knew you’d be showing up. Well, you might as well get in here and get your excuses and hand-wringing over with.”
Danny stepped inside. The house was at least twenty degrees hotter than outside. The windows were open and a few box fans were doing their best, but it was a losing battle. There were some large flies circling the sink. The house was silent.
“I was there. An officer on the scene confirmed that Will is alive.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.”
“If you need…”
“I’m going to stop you right there. What is it that you think you’ve done here?”
“What do you mean?” Danny asked.
“You write this story. You put this family, whether you meant to or not, right in the middle of the biggest shit fight you can imagine, and you send a few dollars our way. Then what?”
“Well, Mrs. Kerry…”
“Karen. I am hoping that what we’re seeing is the final end for the private prison industry. That we stop being used to prop up a corporation that runs on human suffering.”
“That’s great. All for it. You know what that looks like for me while this is all playing out?”
“How?” Danny felt his throat dry out.
“I go down to the store, bingo, or what have you in town. Lifelong friends step away from me. I’m now ‘the lady in that story.’ Phone rings, I don’t dare answer it. I get people wanting any little thing I say so they can write it down and make it mean whatever they want it to. That’s when it ain’t death threats.”
“Oh my god, Mrs. Kerry. Have you…?”
“Called the cops? Sure. Now how seriously do you think they take that, especially now?”
“I’m so sorry. How can I help?”
“You notice the kids ain’t here? I got a sister. She got a different last name from me since she married a few years back. Kids are with her. Eastern Idaho. Far away from the world out there.”
“I’m glad to hear that they’re safe.”
“Yeah. I guess. I hope. You asked what you could do to help. Nothing. You took our story and you made your,” she waved her hands through the air dismissively, “whole thing out of it. You got your name everywhere. You got your fame and money. You get to be a part of changing that stupid law that took my boy. Enjoy that.”
“Mrs. Kerry I am doing my best…”
“No! You listen now. You did a good thing. I am not saying you didn’t,” she shook with rage, “but my life is a whole lot more peaceful with you out of it. You hear me? Maybe we do see a change. Maybe we do get our families back. Maybe we don’t have to stay up at night thinking about how the little ones are next in line, but you know what?”
“It don’t mean it’s over. Ain’t like the mill’s open again. Ain’t like they’re hiring out east. Ain’t like we suddenly have new and exciting options. We are all still here dealing with all of this while you, and the rest of the world, move on to the next thing. Just because you fix one part, granted a big part, of the system don’t mean that we’re not still just…shit to be ground up out here.”
“Then that will be the next thing. That will be what we do. We will fight for…”
“No, you won’t. You did your thing and now you’re moving on. You featured your poor-ass folk and got your results. You don’t now get to come out here and pretend you’re one of us.”
“Karen, I’ve got family from…”
“But that was long ago. It’s okay. You are who you are. But this is not your life. This is not your town. You are not us. You caused a big division. Maybe one that needed to happen, but a big one nonetheless. Just let us heal. Okay? Just go. Maybe someday we can sit down and have a talk or something. Not today. Not for a while.”
And that was it. She was done. Danny shook his head and saw himself out. She was right. The chaos that was erupting would never affect him nearly as much as it would her. There were many worlds in the country that he had no claim to. He could share the stories, but he would never be from there.
His car glinted in the sun. The interior was nearly boiling. He turned the AC on full and silently slid out of town. It was dark before the silence got to him. He turned on the radio and took the car off cruise control. The night was not cooling off.
“—erupted in violence today at a protest over the SERA act. Police responded initially with tear gas and pepper spray. A small number of protestors began to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and there were reports of gunfire,” the smooth voice newsreader said.
“The police reportedly began firing into the crowd. Several protestors lay shot on the ground when the crowd surged toward police.”
Danny began to speed up. By the time he passed the 55 MPH Speed Limit sign he was going 70.
“On the corner of 10th and Simmons, six heavily armored officers stood in a circle around a fallen protestor, beating him.”
Danny was at 75. The reflectors on the side of the highway glowed like stars as he raced past them. The back side of the reflectors, the side colored red to warn drunks they were going the wrong way, flashed in his rear view.
“An eyewitness reports ‘They were just beating him. I mean laughing and…I’m sure he was dead. Had to be.’ Several such reports were given to us in the city tonight.”
Eighty-five and the tires were barely making any road noise. He’d be there before too much longer.
“The downtown core is still under curfew after the National Guard was called in order to aid the police’s attempt to clear the area. Dozens of fires, including vehicles and businesses, are still going. Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House has issued a statement. In it, the president states, ‘The pain and anguish in the streets of America tonight will not be ignored. We will endeavor that it will not have been in vain. All that we can ask is that you give us time so that we may better…”
Danny turned it off. 95. He was racing towards a world in change. Something was going to burn so that a better thing could take its place. 100. The red flashes in his rear view were joined by blue.
This story originally appeared in Original to Curious Fictions .