Harris County Jail: 701 N San Jacinto

The Harris County Jail just a few blocks from our studio is ever-present in my mind. I walk past daily, perhaps 5-12 police officers within sight most of the time. I notice the steady flow of foot traffic, mostly families and friends coming and going during visiting hours. Two men in particular have caught my attention, though a language barrier and my shyness prevent me from approaching them to find out more. While the rest of Houston goes about its daily business, these two men sell ice cream and candies from their push-carts, colorful shade umbrellas and brightly wrapped treats a poignant contrast to the darkened prison doors and fake windows.

Their business is no different from any other sole proprietor–the business of making money, offering consistent service–but watching small children dance and leap along the sidewalk on their way to the prison is a strange sight indeed. Part of me is glad to see something uplifted in this otherwise dark setting. The children are with their families, after all, presumably going to visit a loved one or friend on the other side of the bars. That they can have this small treat to help lighten the experience seems almost beautiful, almost compassionate.

I wonder what they see on the other side, the tones of the inmates’ voices, the looks upon their faces. I wonder, too, how the daily or weekly ritual of visiting someone in prison makes an impact on a child. If you didn’t know this building is a prison, you might think this little corner of Houston is the safest, most joyful place around. A beautiful bridge crosses Buffalo Bayou, steps leading below to a walkway along the water with public art and a greenway. The children look happy, the vendors smile, the families appear well-dressed, students come and go with books in hand as they cross the street to University of Houston-Downtown. But inside 701 N San Jacinto, the world looks something like this:


16 of 25 Ways of Looking at Houston: Here is one of the men who sells candies outside the prison. I don’t speak Spanish and I felt stupid, but my determination won out. I wrote down a few questions in Spanish (using an online translator – not good) and handed the men a slip of paper. One didn’t want anything to do with me, but this man said a lot, about 15% of which I understood. He’s worked in this job 16 years and goes to spots all over the city, often seeing the same families for years and years. He likes his job and describes it as good. I cannot think of Houston without seeing these vendors in my mind’s eye, their daily presence a reminder of just how complex and layered life in the city can feel when one border butts up against another: one man’s folly another man’s capital gain. You can come to this country and build yourself from the ground up. You can end up self-employed or you can end up behind bars. Here, there’s no escape from that reminder.

Today’s NY Times title prompt: “Rolling Up Our Sleeves.”

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