The Count

Shirley Huey

USA

Scene: Chino, a town of subdivisions and cattle pens—without traffic, less than an hour away from Los Angeles. At 8am, a pungent manure scent hangs in the hot summer air. The car windows are up, but I can’t escape the stench of cattle dairies coming through the vents. The prison complex is on the outskirts of town, just beyond a lush emerald field. Tendrils of mist lift like smoke from tall dew-bright grasses. A red-tailed hawk swoops down from on high, disappears into green, and emerges triumphant, a mouse in its talons.

I have traveled here to interview my prisoner clients. It is the first day of a prison monitoring tour to review California’s compliance with a civil rights consent decree.

At the security desk, my assigned escort—a burly former SWAT team guy who moonlights as security for celebrities—greets me. We are buzzed through, and the first heavy metal door slides open. Now I am outside in a small fenced-in space. A metallic thud – the first door closes behind me. Up ahead, a metal door opens when the one I have just gone through has been shut and locked.

I follow instructions to walk on the pale blue line, one of several colored lines painted on the ground, branching to different locations. A high metal fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the prison complex. I wait as my escort chats with other prison staff. A red tailed hawk flies overhead. I point it out to my escort.

He says they get lots of birds here. ‘Hawks, eagles, you name it. Sometimes they get caught in the electric fencing. 4000 volts will kill you instantly. Researchers come every year to count the birds’ migration.’ The fence designed to kill people in an instant, glints silver fire in the morning sun.

I wonder then whether the bird researchers know about ‘the count’—the daily, hourly count of people, of bodies, of numbers that happens in prisons and jails. I think about the many beings caught in the web of state violence: birds, prisoners, their children, mothers, lovers.

Shirley Huey is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.