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for people who care about the West

The myths that imprison us

A prison town reflects Western truths of reinvention and subjugation.


We the people are living through a period of history where our national mythologies have been laid bare. It has been a tough run: 9/11 showed us our vulnerabilities, even as the sin of exceptionalism led us into an unwinnable, unending war; then came the Great Recession, the result of Wall Street greed and the optimism of fools; then the triumph of cynical corporations; and now a new president who revels in chaos and xenophobia, lies with impunity and brings out the worst in all of us. Many who voted for Donald Trump, I believe, did so out of fear and frustration — the emotions that undergird intolerance. But no one has a monopoly on hate. And we are all in the same mess now.

Here in the West, we are no strangers to American myths — of progress, of independence, of high character. As much as we’d like to forget it, though, our region was built on blood and bone, conquest and lies. Our wide skies and wild spaces conceal a dark history, and if we are all to live in this region together and move forward, we must confront the untruths that hold us back. Especially in such troubled times, when the temptation is to hunker down and mind our own business.

This issue’s cover story tells of a town in Southern California that, betrayed by the stories it told itself, is now in a desperate struggle for viability. In that struggle, as correspondent Sarah Tory reports, the town has become part of a booming incarceration economy, a heavy cog in a brutal machine that imprisons the innocent, denies basic rights, and perpetuates confinement for the sake of economic efficiency. Adelanto, California, was built on the myth of desert agriculture. When its orchards dried up, it reinvented itself as a military town. And when its Air Force base closed, it turned to prisons, earning pennies on the dollar for a corporation that profits by detaining asylum-seekers and others for the Department of Homeland Security.

Editor-in-chief Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren

The story of Adelanto is inextricable from the story of its prisoners, and Sarah unsparingly reveals the history of both the town and of one man caught in its system, an asylum-seeker who believed in the American promise of freedom and found only despair. It is a difficult story to read, for it asks many questions about our basic values. Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Here, we go even further; we take you inside a detention facility designed for the innocent. We are far beyond Crime and Punishment and deep into Capitalism and Profit. Read it, and ask yourself: Why does such a place exist at all? And why was it built in the American West?