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Hothouses for Hapless Masses on the Rio Grande


Upon the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge where the chachalacas gather in small groups to screech for dawn, John Neck takes Jay Johnson-Castro for a winding-down ride. The two friends have returned here nightly during their five-day walk against immigrant prisons, because out here where the desert plants drink freely from estuary water, life is in love with itself.

Even looking at the people out here tending to their backyard citrus groves, you can’t help but breathe a vision of life harmonious and full of grace. True, it’s a different lay of land than what the friends saw recently on the Texas Rolling Plains, but what’s the same is rural people who know the earth well enough to live off her.

As they crisscross the winding resacas of the Rio Grande Delta on their paths to and from a poisoned sampler of South Texas prisons, Laguna Atascosa always welcomes them back with a grin as if to say, wasn’t that some fukked up bullshit you saw back there, and thanks for being men enough to cry.

Not that the child prison of Los Fresnos wasn’t grim enough on Wednesday, or that the hidden secrets of Port Isabel didn’t moan underground Thursday from back behind the thicketed gates, but Sunday at Raymondville was a special spike through the heart-a concentration camp of windowless plastic hothouses where a babel of forty or more languages gets melted into one universal cry of injustice.

On a hot day you can walk into one of those steaming plastic shells and smell nothing but puke as the earth’s most fukked over stomachs do everything possible to disgorge the poisonous foods they have been conned into eating. On a cold day you can do the same thing shivering.

Once a day at Raymondville, they let the hapless masses out to remind them of sky, and then an hour later they are shoved back in. It gets to be too much. What is there for everyone to do but watch the young man who ties his bed sheet somehow to the ceiling and makes himself a noose. Everyone watches, even the guards, because there is nothing else to do. In the end, they don’t let the man finish his act, but the guards never lift a finger either way.

For a dedicated attorney such as Jodi Goodwin who walks with Jay and John this Sunday, her willingness to help overflows her ability. For one thing is the sheer number of languages that greet you. Even if you want to help that woman from Ethiopia, it would cost thousands of dollars to hire an interpreter, which is money you don’t have.

Goodwin remembers a time before blankets at Raymondville–a time before winter coats. Both of these things she demanded for her clients and got. From August through December she even demanded press coverage which is impossible to sue for these days.

Sunday Goodwin was the walk’s guest of honor. She showed up on time, got a friend to help her park her car at Raymondville, and then returned to talk and walk with Johnson-Castro as loyal cars followed slowly behind. During the final hour, the walk was joined by Dallas supporters Dr. Asma Salam and Jose Delarocha who will host prison vigils in Dallas on Wednesday and Thursday. The Dallas vigils will call attention to a forthcoming federal ruling in the matter of habeas corpus for the Hazahza family who were split up between Texas prisons last November and who have yet to be reunited in freedom.

In a widening circle of conscience that began in Austin last December, the walks of Jay Johnson-Castro and John Neck have exorcised the secrets of five immigrant prisons in Texas: T. Don Hutto, Rolling Plains, International Educational Services, Port Isabel, and Raymondville. In Dallas they will try to pry another family free.

As for the thousands of nameless immigrants whose pictures we do not have, can it be true that some of them have been rotated from camp to camp for five years or more? Nothing we know tells us to disbelieve the report. The friends of Johnson-Castro have been too reliable for that. But like many Germans in 1945 there will be Americans today who can say we know something’s going on, but never exactly what.

Simply for the sake of awareness, so that the American people can know what’s going on, “we did really accomplish something here,” said Johnson-Castro to a crowd of a dozen supporters, including television crews from KGBT and Univision. “Look at all this law enforcement,” he said, indicating dozens of people in cars, plain clothes, police uniform, prison guards, and homeland security.

“The criminals who run this show can say that’s the game, but we can say we are sick and tired of you making these rules,” says Johnson-Castro from his cell phone in the thickets of Laguna Atascosa. Alas, Neck’s truck has run out of gas, so Johnson-Castro sits for a time alone in the truck while Neck takes a quarter-mile trek. The winding-down ride is over.

“The criminals make the rules,” says Johnson-Castro. “And we’re going to put a stop to that.”

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at



Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. He can be reached at

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