I live in New York State’s Adirondack Park, an environmentally protected area comprising about 23% of New York State. It is a wonderful place and I love living here. But there is an aspect of the Park that I find very uncomfortable. In 1973, the New York State legislature adopted into law the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan finalizing the boundaries of the Park and putting into effect many of the environmental restrictions. That same year, the legislature passed the Rockafeller Drug Laws, which was the advent of New York State’s policy of mass incarceration. Over the past forty years, many prisons have been built in the Park, and the communities where these prisons are located have tended to become economically dependent on the prison-industrial complex. In an era of severe government cutbacks, these political decisions of the past can have strange and unforeseen consequences.
“Am I Free to Go?” is essentially a monolog. In February of 2011, it began as an exercise in narrative voice when I was working with Edward Cornell, a New York theater director who now lives in the Adirondacks. He assigned me to find a monolog to work on with him. I couldn't find any I liked.
The dramatic monologs I found bore too little resemblance to the women I know in real life and seemed constricted by gender stereotypes. (If I had found the play Wit by Margaret Edson in early 2011, I probably would have stopped there.) Next, I tried reading aloud stories I had reprinted in Year’s Best volumes, but found that many of the stories I loved best worked better on the page than out loud.
And so I wrote something. Ted Cornell listened to me read all or part of it aloud many times through many drafts; his encouragement and comments brought into the form you find it now. This story is as much human rights fiction as it is science fiction. I believe that we live on the knife’s edge of a political cascade in which consequence piles on consequence, leading the United States in directions that most of use don’t want to go. What I intended is a monolog somewhat in the mode of “Swimming to Cambodia” by Spalding Grey and about an extrapolation of the here and now that I inhabit.
Many of these "utopias" are -- from our 21st century perspective -- quite dystopian indeed. They involve such things as using super-weapons to rid the Germans of the pesky French thus liberating Germany from the much-hated Treaty of Versailles, and clever ideas for achieving racial purity through the use of Aryan breeding colonies (with a ratio of one "hero" to 100 "racially pure" women). Some books raise the question of how the future "utopian" state is to be paid for; sometimes the answer in these books involved riches discovered after finding Atlantis. Writers of our era are much more cautious about putting their ideological cards on the table.
I have put my cards on the table: "Am I Free to Go?" engages with the problems of privatization, a topic I have explored in depth on my blog at kathryncramer.com, especially in my writings concerned with military privatization.
“Am I Free to Go?” took over my life for about six months. It became not only an attempt to grapple with the problem of finding myself a 21st century female narrative voice, but also a research project and a personal negotiation with the Adirondack Park.
Two books served my guide through Weimar-era SF. I highly recommend both, though the Hermand can be expensive and hard to come by: Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic by Peter Fisher and Old Dreams of a New Reich: Volkish Utopias and National Socialism by Jost Hermand. I also re-read The Ponary Diary: 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder by Kazimierz Sakowicz (with an eye towards the economics of mass incarceration). While I was re-reading it, I happened to attend a high school production of Into the Woods; in The Ponary Diary, when someone goes "into the woods" it means that they escaped immediate execution, but still may not survive.
Here in the Adirondacks, where seeing prisoners in supervised work groups is part of day-to-day life, unless one works for the prison system or has some volunteer capacity with the prisons, there is very little opportunity to get to know the prisoners who are our neighbors. For that, I had to rely on mostly books.
In Toronto in April of 2011, I had long conversations with Peter Watts comparing notes and discussing in detail his own detention ordeal.
I also read about a panel discussion featuring DaShaun Morris (a former gang member who spent time in prison) and Ishmael Beah (a former child soldier) in which the two speakers found a number of tangencies in their experiences. So I read their books back to back: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah and War of the Bloods in My Veins: A Street Soldier's March Toward Redemption by DaShaun "Jiwe” Morris with Jeff Johnson. I was in part concerned with what kind of experiences could both take a privileged narrator to a place where on the one hand she is transformed into a criminal and on the other hand she really gets what is wrong with living in a utopia with a jail-based economy.
It would be nice to think that there was little connection between German fascism and life in the US, (and specifically in the Adirondack Park). When I visited Tornoto in the spring of 2011, David Nickle, whose novel Eutopia was just out, turned me on to The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black which helped me find the real and thematic connections: the key crossover figure for the Park is Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System.
On the science fiction end of things, the idea of a fungal internet was inspired by a chapter from Paul Stamets’ book Mycellium Running in which he compares the structure of fungal mats to the structure of the Internet, arguing that fungi are Nature’s Internet.
And then there are the documents and newspaper articles. For a while it seemed the story began to write itself as the local newspaper documented the struggles of our local prison-industrial complex in a Tea Party world. Here are a few highlights.
* The discovery of a 2003 newsletter form the NY State Department of Corrections which has since vanished from the web which contained the following passage:
The Department has entered the high-tech agricultural era and that is expected to translate to a substantial savings in state taxpayer dollars. Earlier this year, employees at Otisville set up a hydroponics greenhouse on facility grounds as part of a pilot lettuce growing program. Similar in concept to the massive greenhouse that’s a favorite family attraction at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida, soil is not required to grow vegetables, flowers or other plants. Rather, seedlings raised at the facility from scratch are planted in long rows that resemble a series of parallel plastic gutters. There, the lettuce plants are fed a steady diet of water and precise liquid nutrients through an exposed root system until they reach maturity, at which time they will serve as inmate meals. [italics mine]
* The claim of a projected increase in the need for jail beds in the Adirondacks: Two seek sheriff's job in Essex County, October 28, 2010, Post Star, Glens Falls, NY,
The Essex County jail, Cutting said, was built to handle the needs of the county 20 to 30 years down the road. Since the jail now has more beds than inmates, Cutting said, he contracted with the United State Marshals Service and, on average, boards 30 to 40 federal inmates a day.
"I get $98 dollars a day for every one I board in. We have to have the space so, in the meantime, I'm doing the best I can for the people in the county by renting that space out and trying to bring money back to the budgets in Essex County," he said.
Note: According to the new 2010 census, the population of Essex County increased 1.3 percent from 2000 to 2010. If this goes on, in 30 years, the population of Essex County will be 4% larger than it is now, not 3 times larger.
* The Sherrif loved a picnic: Essex County Jail may be renamed for the late Henry Hommes by Lohr McKinstry, The Plattsburgh Press Republican, 3/30/2011.
Hommes enjoyed a good picnic, and Douglas said they'll probably have a cookout in his honor as part of the name-change ceremony at the jail.
* Illegal aliens mean cash for Essex County by Lohr McKinstry, January 20th, 2009, Plattsburgh Press Republican.
I suppose I should also acknowledge the State Troopers who came wandering into my house in the middle of the night by mistake when I was about two thirds done with the story. I was careful to follow the advice of FlexYourRights.org. I really did get an apology from a cop.