Today I visit a downtown Houston Harris County jail, my first time in a prison in any country, even though my father was jailed for a year nearly half a century ago in Karachi. I make the trip with René to see his student Alejandro, who was picked up two weeks ago for being undocumented while he was trying to get a drivers license so he could apply for a job. He got caught for faking his social security card and was thrown into a county jail. After many pleas by his lawyers, he will be released on Wednesday but there is a chance that he might be deported to Mexico.
Alejandro, 18 years old, has been living in this country since he was five years old. His entire family is in Houston, but he may get sent away to a place he no longer considers home.
The downtown Houston prison, just a few blocks away from University of Houston Downtown, is a five story building, and when we step inside, I am struck that people standing in line to get visitors’ permits are either African American or Latina/o. Just yesterday I was in a downtown Houston city courthouse to defend a traffic violation, and I found myself making the same observation. And today, once again, I am reminded that the color of Houston’s population changes when one is in spaces such as prisons and courthouses.
After waiting in line for some time so we can get a permit to see Alejandro, René and I finally get our paperwork, go through the metal detectors and then, take the elevator to the third floor where we wait for Alejandro to be released into a glassed-in room. When he finally emerges, René talks to him through the intercom system in the glass. Around us are mostly women and children talking to the imprisoned men in their families. At the corner booth, an older man presses his mouth to the intercom and calls out to his son behind the glass to hold on. Alejandro, dressed in orange county prison pants and shirt, is young, and all he can do is press his ear into the round intercom and nod as René encourages him in English and Spanish to be strong.
Our visit is short—just fifteen minutes—and through the whole conversation, Alejandro’s head is bent. But I can sense the tears in his eyes. When René asks him, “Are you okay? Are they treating you well?” he nods.
Behind him, talking into the glass on the other side, are two tall men, older and more toughened. I hope it’s true that they are treating Alejandro well. He is too young and he didn’t commit a crime. We live in a fucked up world operating with a fucked up system, and yes, this is where our tax dollars go: we pay our city and our county to catch the young and throw them into prison for merely living.