The city of Gatesville, Texas, lies 37 miles west of Waco. Of its 15,945 residents, some 2,600 are employed by the city's five prisons and one state jail.
Around 9,000 are incarcerated, roughly 58 percent of the city's population. Prison City.
I'm familiar enough with the geography and architecture of Central Texas to conjure mental images of these sprawling sand-gray compounds, but I can only imagine what it's like to live in one. My understanding of their inner life relies on fictional portrayals and whatever information makes it to the public record.
The public record informs me that somewhere inside Gatesville's Alfred D. Hughes Unit, a prisoner I'll call Daniel Jay is a decade into serving two concurrent 14-year sentences.
The date on these charges is still capable of sending little chills up my spine. December 23, 2005. Two counts of intoxicated manslaughter.
One for each of my parents.
This week, it will be 10 years since the night Daniel Jay had too much to drink at a Christmas party and smashed into my parents' van. Mom died instantly. Dad was responsive when police arrived but bled to death a few hours later in the hospital.
I am still the same person, but much of the daughter my parents knew died alongside them. I have since grown in unexpected directions, like a tree whose shape is transformed by being struck by lightning.
Up until December 23, 2005, I was a member of a close-knit Midwestern family—the kind that loves you tightly but also makes you feel vaguely guilty for growing up and leaving home.
In the early hours of December 24, I became an Orphan in the Void with no living ancestors or descendants, thanking God that my sister had not been in the van with our parents.
What do I mean by God? I mean the sensation you encounter when you are a newly minted Orphan in the Void crying exponentially into the carpet, and you can see that the Emptiness that meets your cries is alive and that there are still things in it to be thankful for.
My parents were buried in my mom's hometown of Hubbard, Iowa, and Mr. Jay disappeared into the unfathomable labyrinth of the Texas prison system. I have seen him in person only once, at his trial. We glanced at each other for a moment, and he quickly averted his eyes.
This was not his first drunk-driving offense. At the time of the accident, he was actually ineligible for a Texas driver's license due to prior brushes with the law. Given this history, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that he struggled with alcoholism and should probably have had access to treatment. Instead, he's a warm body in a multibillion-dollar prison industrial complex.
He is now 54 years old, the age my parents were when they died.
The prison is his punishment, the means by which his debt to society may ostensibly be paid. In this case, "society" is my sister and me, the kids whose future ability to regard family gatherings with anything other than the dull heartbreak of orphandom was lost as a result of his carelessness.
Cause and effect. The "justice system."
Despite his role in my parents' death, I have a hard time feeling anything but sympathy for Daniel Jay. When I tell people this, they often react by congratulating me, as though I must have worked through some very deep anger in order to achieve a benevolent, Zen-like state of forgiveness. This reaction makes me uncomfortable. It seems to imply that "an eye for an eye" is the default human reaction to tragedy, and that perhaps I am entitled to feel somehow more evolved or self-righteous for not hating a person who made a terrible mistake, even if his entire life had been nothing but a series of terrible mistakes.
My feelings would be different if Daniel Jay had, say, walked into my parents' family therapy practice and gunned them down in cold blood. But drunk driving is so ubiquitous as to be banal. I have several friends who have gotten DUIs through the years, and if I'm honest, there have even been times when it could have been me. This doesn't excuse what happened, but it helps me put it into context.
Car culture killed my parents just as much as any one person's choices did. They were sacrificed on the altar of far-flung communities where people drive 20 miles to party and 20 more miles to get home.
A culture where alcoholism, mental illness, and depression are stigmatized and those who suffer are routinely denied access to treatment killed my parents, too. This system sends people who make deadly mistakes to prison instead of helping all of us build better, more humane social structures, and it is conveniently positioned to profit off its own horrific outcomes.
According to the US Department of Transportation, more than 10,000 people die every year as the result of drunk driving. That's enough people to fill all the prisons in Gatesville, Texas, and staff half of them. A city of ghost prisons.
When I think about all that has happened in the last 10 years, the idea of spending that long in prison gives me a sense of vertigo. Does the time crawl by, like you are a child in church? Or does it pass in the blink of an eye, your body aging as though it were in a time-lapse film?
As the 10th anniversary of my parents' death approaches, I have been thinking about sending Daniel Jay a Christmas card with a kindly worded note. Could it make him feel worse? Or could my acknowledgement that he is a human being who probably resonates in pain according to the same calendar that I do provide some semblance of solace?
Am I naive for assuming he feels anything at all?
Perhaps. But when my sister was cleaning out our mother's home office, she stumbled on a folder with Daniel Jay's name on it.
My mother, a bookkeeper, had once done his tax return.
It is likely that he had been in our home. I can only assume that he remembers who my mother was and is therefore aware of the light that he extinguished.
One of the unfortunate consequences of American culture's puritanical roots is that we have done much to demonize the evil that others do, as though that evil is something we ourselves are incapable of. The reality is that Daniel Jay could be just about any one of us, or at least someone we know and love in spite of their flaws.
The many prisons of Gatesville, Texas, are a manifestation of capitalism, to be sure, but they also exist because they allow us to feel like we're doing something to punish people who deserve it. As long as we are identifying and punishing evil in others, we can ignore the evil in ourselves.
The desire to ignore the evil in ourselves is powerful. It's a power that builds prisons and can rationalize turning a profit from pain.
I don't want to punish Daniel Jay. I want him to get better.