Nine Ways of Seeing Prison

  1. While lying on your steel bunk, a shaft of sunlight sluices through window panes and curls around bars to warm your bare leg. Light that has hurtled 93,000,000 miles in eight minutes from a sphere you could stuff a million Earths into. The sun’s life half spent, like a middle-aged man scratching his graying beard, wondering where the time has gone.
  2. Cudgeling up clumps of soil with a dull-bladed grub hoe, armed guards atop their spotted Appaloosas, barking orders to mind your row, work harder, swing faster. Each glob of loam writhing with more organisms than there are humans scrabbling on this planet. The sticky wads gummed to the soles of your ragged brogans, five hundred precious years in the making.
  3. The sky sucking water from lakes and swamps, rivers and oceans, plants and flesh to transform into puffs of cumulus scudding overhead. A gazillion water droplets jiggling in heaps that you’d swear are lighter than air, but weigh more than seventy-six husky African elephants. They grumble high above the cement ceiling of your unit, while you slog down the narrow corridor to the chow hall.
  4. A beetle scuttling across your cell floor, family member of a lineage trailing back to the Permian Period, having outlasted the calving of Pangea and the eternal slumber of dinosaurs. Besides having wings hard as fingernail clippings, they graze on aphids, trees, and animal dung. When done, they leave behind their brittle husks for you to flush down aluminum commodes.
  5. Mid-day backache, hunched over unending furrows of cotton, plucking the tufts from bowls sprung in the sweltering heat. Gossypium, as it’s otherwise known, gulps twenty-seven times its weight in water. A quarter-ton bale being spun into 4,300 pairs of state-issued socks, or 1,200 uniform tops, or 250 pairs of sweat-soaked pants you wipe your stiff fingers on.
  6. Pigeons clustered on the chapel roof like a covey of cherubs, bobbing their heads in sync with twitchy steps to stabilize their sight – their world a kaleidoscope of colors. Keenly aware of where home is, they lift swiftly into the air, flutter like a gray gust, then settle in unison atop the building to peck at cottonwood seeds ferried by the wind, then dumped.
  7. Marveling at lovebugs shuddering in pairs along the sidewalk, windowsills, drifting on a breeze. While returning from showers, you stall in the May sun, hold out your hand, invite them to alight on your palm. Thousands speckling the afternoon like a pointillist painting, affixed at their tails, throbbing with instinct.
  8. Along the seams of the building, where concrete meets Bermuda grass, a lot skinned back by the groundskeeper. Sleek asters and floppy daffodils and languid black-eyed Susans jut from damp dirt for the officers’ pleasure. While the guards pat-search you – running their latexed hands along your thighs, up your back, under your arms – you glance at the flowers and pilfer a parcel of heaven.
  9. At night, while the guard’s keys jangle from his belt, the moon floats in a boundless, black sky. You watch it through a slat of window on the far wall, iridescent and enthralling, while your cell mate snores on his bunk. A chunk of Earth chipped off 4.5 billion years ago by a meandering boulder. You wave to it, wistfully aware that every year it slides a little farther away.
John Langenfeld entered the Texas prison system at the age of twenty-one and served fifteen consecutive years. While incarcerated, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in literature from University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has been published in Entropy, The Threepenny Review and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @John_Langenfeld or visit his website at



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