Montgomery County Prison Blues

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.

— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

I go to prison every day. For once, I am not speaking in metaphor; and I am not trying to be clever, which I certainly am. I do not own a car, so I ride the 93 Bus from my apartment in Collegeville to Norristown. One of the stops as the bus meanders through the countryside of Montgomery County (“Montco” to those in the know) is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The bus slows down at the checkpoint; and the guard waves it through: no drug-sniffing dogs or mirrors passed under the vehicle – a good thing, as we are on a schedule. The bus stop is just a few yards from the main prison building, a low brick structure that in many ways looks like a high school. Coincidence?

I watch the people who stream onto and off the bus and wonder about them. Do they work at the prison? Are they here to visit someone incarcerated inside? Is the prison a symbol of hope (i.e., employment) or a reminder of how their lives have gone tragically wrong? There are young African American and Hispanic men who laugh and joke with each other; and young White men talking loudly about how hard it is to get a job and keep making child support payments. There is even one guy in a wheelchair who reminds me of the Fonz: complete with the white T-shirt, leather jacket, and pompadour hairdo. There are also women: usually thin White women with bad teeth and stringy hair—modern-day molls who have seen much better days. Or have they?

I am seized by the sudden realization that these people have experienced a segment of life that has never occurred to me. And worse, for me at least, is the fear someone might assume that—because I am on this bus—I too might have some connection to or business at the prison. The very thought shakes my Ivy League-educated, card-carrying elitist self to the core. I clutch my laptop bag tighter, as if it is some sort of ancient talisman that will protect me from demons. I try not to look at anyone else and promise myself that I will start saving money to buy a car. Right after I get a Venti coffee at Starbucks.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Anyone ever ask you who you are visiting at the Prison? How would you respond? Would you try to fit in or make sure that they knew “you” didn’t belong on the bus? It would be a dilemma at first, I think, for me at least. Although I came from poor, slightly working class roots — would I be able to let go of the privilege that I now have to have a genuine conversation, to be empathetic? Hmmmm….good thoughts Peterkin. Made me think again.

  2. One of the subtle benefits of my job is that I can occasionally interact with all social levels as equals, as the other persons will let me do so (equal can be unnerving in an unequal culture). People are people, but the prison environment might be what sets one on edge interacting with the same people while not knowing that information.

    A wry thought: I wonder how your reaction here matches the situation in the vignette of your Gates post?


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