They’re still building roads out on Otay Mesa, about three miles north of the international border. The hot tar takes longer to set in the incredible heat. The smell hangs thick over the brown hillsides by the Corrections Corporation of America prison.
All around the facility, multiple coils of barbed wire loop and line the fences.
Supervised detainees in blue outfits — with “DETAINEE” printed on the back — clean the windows in the lobby.
The look of distrust on the faces of the workers at the prison is palpable. They watch you as if they’re ready for you to attack them. Tell a joke to cut the tension and no one laughs.
Even the employees are frisked on their way in.
The long walk to the little glass room to meet Kenneth Hathaway winds through a windowless, empty hallway. Finally, after a quarter mile up steps, around corners, and through a series of locked doors, a tall 18-year-old kid in a green “INMATE” outfit is sitting there with his hands interlocked in front of him. He has a goofy, aw-shucks look on his face. It’s an expression that says he knows he’s supposed to be embarrassed about his predicament — he is in prison, after all — but it also seems to say that he knows he’s better than a common criminal.
Hathaway’s hair is brushed forward so that it all points at his face. It accentuates his pointy features: a birdlike nose and sharp eyes, even. He’s tall, about six feet two, and there’s a space between his two front teeth.
Hathaway has served three months of his sentence. He was caught red-handed driving a vanload of aliens on I-8 near Campo. “It sucks being in prison,” he says, rather goofily.
Hathaway got lucky. Six months instead of the recommended 18. He also has to go back to Alaska to live for three years, supervised by his mother while he finishes high school and goes to vocational school to become a mechanic.
It’s Hathaway’s first time locked up, although he was on probation more than once as a juvenile.
How did Hathaway get involved in human smuggling?
“I moved in with my buddy from school,” he says, referring to his hometown of Reedsport, Oregon. “And this guy’s dad was, like, ‘Do you want to make a bunch of money?’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Because I was pretty much just bumming off them. So they said we’d go down to San Diego and make a bunch of money.”
Hathaway was working on a car, drinking a beer, when his buddy’s dad approached him with the idea. “He was, like, ‘There’s no risk involved,’ ” Hathaway says, with a look of ironic disbelief on his face that shows he knew there was a risk. “And they were making it sound all good. Like, ‘We’re going to take care of you. You’re going to make so much money. When you come back, you’re going to be set.’ Because that was the plan. Just go down there and make some money, and then come back to Oregon and be all right for a while. But instead, I lost everything. I lost my car. I lost my clothes. I lost my jewelry. I lost my money. I lost my tools. Man.”
Hathaway’s friend and his father are Hispanic, although Hathaway himself is white.
“So we drove down,” Hathaway says. “It was me and my cousin’s friend and my buddy and his dad. And we went to Mexico. And we went to their family’s house in TJ. And their family was, like, the ones who take the people across the border. They had a whole business operation going on down there, with, like, nice cars, 2007 Escalades and Lincoln Town Cars, with all these compartments built into them. And they had all these people working for them, doing the same thing.”
Hathaway was hired as a driver. “They had a bunch of drivers,” he says. “But I didn’t want to take anybody across the border because I knew that was dangerous. So instead, my job was to go back up in this van and then pick these people up who already came across, and then I was going to drive them up to San Diego so another guy could take them to Los Angeles.”
The deal was that Hathaway would drive first and get paid later. He was supposed to earn $400 per person that he carried.
“My friend was in one car, and I was in the van,” Hathaway says, “and the plan was for me to follow him and then stop when he told me.” The two were in constant contact on cell phones.
Hathaway has a knowing look in his eyes, and the way he uses his hands when he talks suggests a kind of conversational intelligence.
“But I stopped,” he says, “and all these people started jumping into the van. I was supposed to pick up 6 guys, but 13 got in. They couldn’t even sit down. They were all on top of each other. And I was, like, ‘Dude, I can’t do this.’ I was stressing.”
After Hathaway picked up his cargo and started driving, he was immediately followed by Border Patrol agents in a marked SUV.
“I saw the Border Patrol right away,” Hathaway says. “And I was, like, ‘Fuck!’ ”
Border Patrol followed Hathaway for 10 or 15 miles. They’d pull up alongside him and then pull in behind. Hathaway’s friend in the other car tried once or twice to get in front of the Border Patrol car and slow down, but then he gave up and drove away, leaving Hathaway to his fate.
“I’ve never heard from my friend since,” Hathaway says, shaking his head.
Hathaway’s parents split up when he was 4. His mother moved to Alaska with what Hathaway calls “some derelict.” He grew up in Alaska until he was 16, when he moved down to Oregon to live with his father. He got kicked out of his father’s house when he was 17.