Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Meet Cameron…

“What comes to mind is peace, and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is, that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.”

Cameron, 39

Incarcerated: 13

Housed: Correctional Training Facility, California

SOFT IN A HARD PLACE

Prisons are not soft and cuddly. 

All across the world prisons are built from cement and steel. They are stocked with hard people doing hard time and ruled with iron fists. In a place where toughness is mandatory and brutality is a virtue, those who do not affect a spiritual exoskeleton and fashion their minds and bodies into weapons held ever ready to fend off the assaults of a hostile world that values strength alone are seen as lesser, as contemptible, as objects of scorn, as prey.

Perhaps prison could have persisted indefinitely. Perhaps these hard places filled with granite hearts and iron wills would never crumble. Perhaps these mean lives born out in the closest proximity to our fellow humans, these callous existences devoid of compassion where we could not so much as acknowledge the struggle, the despair, the suffering of those beside us as they were subjected to the same indignities and cruelties that we were, could have kept on without diverging, and the prison mentality could have maintained its crushing grasp upon us, enforced its illogical directive that humans – a species by all accounts predisposed to seek softness, warmth, and comfort, not stone and steel and solitude – be hard, be cold, be heartless.

Perhaps. But then there were cats.

At first there was just one, a wary orange tabby that prowled the yard between human hours and haunted the forbidden spaces beyond the fences like the phantom of a world long forgotten. We watched from behind glass and steel and wire and cement, watched her romp about, watched her chase birds and share a meal with us. She grew, fed both by pigeons and state food offered by many hands, though in time we realized it was not the meager scraps of unidentifiable meat which made her fat.

The blessing she bestowed upon us for our gifts was delivered, appropriately enough, in an unused locker on the yard’s religious grounds. From the moment the litter of kittens arrived, there existed a covenant among all her feeders and fawners and fans: we shall belong to these cats.

Thus the ensuing weeks were heavy with the sounds of crinkling plastic as not just state food but canteen and package morsels were brought to the site of the pilgrimage, set like sacrifices upon the altar of this mysterious beast who walked among us. We watched in quiet awe from behind our stoic masks as the kittens opened their eyes and emerged to take their first steps, as they explored the world they now shared with us and grew into rambunctious, playful beings of wonder.

Then, of course, we pet them.

I had not until a small orange cat wandered over to sit with me in the grass, had the divine pleasure of petting a cat in fifteen years. I am a writer by trade but to describe the experience leaves me scrabbling for words. Simply, it reminded me that I am alive. It instilled in me a raw, unbridled happiness that I had never felt, not even as a child. I spent many hours with those cats and still, I am amazed at how perfectly they reject everything it means to be in prison: they are playful and unselfconscious, curious and silly, soft and cuddly and so damned schmoofy that if I had a thousand of them I would delight in being buried alive. But even one is bliss.

Sometimes it is even more interesting to watch the interactions of my fellow prisoners with our cats. All those hard cases doing hard time melt like butter on a summer sidewalk when they visit the cats, when they feed them and watch the chasing bees and birds when they make toys to entice the cats to play with them (as I have done – it is too fun for words.) Engaging with a fluffy ball of innocence that offers no judgment whatsoever, stony visages finally bear smiles.

And I understand. I don’t think about the past when a cat hops in my lap. I don’t think of what I should or could have done. I don’t think about courts or life sentences or parole boards. What comes to mind is peace and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today, and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.

The cats, of course, already know this, but they are gracious enough to spend their time with us so that we might learn, and so that we can enjoy a few quiet moments of warmth, of softness, of non-judgment. Of freedom.

Every prison should have cats.

Nathan, 57

Nathan, 57

Meet Nathan…

“I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges.”

Nathan, 57

Incarcerated: 15 yrs

Housed: California Correctional Training Facility, Soledad

My mom Jamie was 16 and my father Abe was 31, neither were honest about their age. They both claimed to be in their 20’s when they met. Abe was a heroin addict and my mom’s parents were both alcoholics. They loved Abe. My grandma Vivian was beautiful with a great intellect, she was kind and thoughtful when sober. When drunk she could get really mean. She told me Abe was a good man, overly intelligent, he loved me and took care of me. My mom said he was the one to get up with me at night. Abe was from a wealthy Jewish family, I’ve never met because they disowned him over his heroin addiction. Abe fled the country to avoid prosecution when I was two. I have no memory of this, but have to imagine this must have been traumatic, as I never heard from him again. My mom has never been a drug user or drinker. She had to take care of her own parents and mothered them at an early age. She never had any judgment about others drinking or using drugs. My mom met Bob and he promised her he would never have any trouble with the law and he kept that promise. I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges. Bob had a jewelry store, pet shop, pawn shop, antique shops, he ran a hotel and bar when he met my mom. He dabbled in stocks, cars, and real estate. He was successful at everything he did. Bob was not affectionate, but he always helped out and gave good advice. Bob was a good man, a better man than I have been. He tried hard to instill his good character traits in me. Though he did tease me when I was young, calling me Suzy because I was wimpy. I was a very scrawny and sensitive child. He was never unkind, he just grew up during a less sensitive time. To him calling me Suzy was innocent, maybe a little humorous, but with no ill intent. I can look back now and see where that might have been a contributing factor to my own distorted self body image, where my fall began. I believe I can trace back my fall to its very inception. One single thought that I believed to be true but wasn’t. All it took was for one doubt to sink in: “That I wasn’t good enough as God created me, that I was too skinny.” My mom met Tony when I was eight. Both Bob and Tony have been good fathers to me, Tony and my mom are still happily married. Tony is also a man of good character, honest and always ethical, but very proud and stubborn. I have a great love and respect for him. My mom went to catechism and her first communion until she was 10. At that age, she saw a car accident where a little girl’s head went through a windshield. She couldn’t understand how the God she was being taught about could let such a thing happen. She told her mom church was a waste of time. She never gave God or the Church another thought. My own belief in God was innate, it was as if I was born with it. My parents never tried to influence me in any way, however, I have been inquisitive. As a small child, I would contemplate the universe and infinity. I couldn’t comprehend infinity, so I would have to imagine what was at the end of the universe, there had to be something. I would imagine a wall. But then if there was a wall, there had to be something on the other side of the wall. So, I not only couldn’t comprehend infinity, I couldn’t comprehend not infinity. I thought, if this is the case then I had to believe I was foreign, and limited in my ability to comprehend. I would try to imagine what the world would be like if I no longer existed in it, I tried to imagine my non-existence. My conclusion was it didn’t matter. I knew my mom didn’t believe in God, so every chance I got to talk to a priest, a Christian, or a Catholic; I would always ask the same question: what happens to someone who doesn’t believe in God? The same answer always comes back; they go to eternal hell. I would always answer back; “but what if they are a good person?” I would get the same response; I’m sorry, I wish everyone could go to heaven, but non-believers can’t. None of this changed my belief in God, and I am grateful that God is not how man would make him out to be; because if that was the case, we would all be in real trouble. What it did do, is give me an unhealthy disdain for religion, especially the way Catholicism and Christianity were taught. At 8, I had a friend Bobby, who invited me on a one-week camping trip. Late the night before we were to leave, his mom dropped off a list of things like games and cards that couldn’t bring. My Mom thought it was odd and told me that she didn’t think I should go. I was packing my magic tricks and things that I would not be able to bring. She said she had a bad feeling about this and I really shouldn’t go. I whined and cried telling her Bobby and I have all these great plans. She gave in, thinking how bad it could be. She said if I had any concerns to call her and she’d come pick me up immediately. When I arrived, I found out it was a Christian camp. Which was deliberately withheld from me, my mom, and possibly Bobby by his family. I was deceived intentionally. I refused to cooperate in their games and demanded to be able to call my mom to pick me up. For a whole week, they never let me use the phone. I was basically kidnapped under false pretenses, and held against my will. When I was brought back home, my mom said I must have had a good time because I never called her.  I said, no I didn’t, everyone including Bobby had to give their lives over to God and I refused, because I thought it was stupid, and I’m never speaking to Bobby again. Can you imagine if this was done to a child today? Don’t get me wrong, I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus. I love Him as an elder brother.  My mom and Tony always do right by others, not because of any religion,  it is the right way to be, they are just really good human beings. Much better than I have been. Neither believe in or give thought to God or an afterlife or think there is any kind of reward for being selfless. It is just the way they are. My mom believes when we die that is it, we no longer exist. I cannot even comprehend that thought. My mom’s Christian friends tell her that she is a better Christian than most Christians they know. She has always had a great wisdom about her, much greater than could be acquired in this lifetime alone. She is always so busy, she barely has time to do the things she would like to do. She belongs to a women’s club and they do charity work for the homeless, cancer and heart patients, and work with other charities that bring aid to foreign countries. She is always donating her time. They give scholarships away for kids to go to college. Something she never had the opportunity to do herself. She is just such a beautiful human being.

Victor, 54

Victor, 54

Meet Victor…

I scanned the dayroom, paying particular attention to people’s hands, looking for weapons, and to eyes and faces to see attitudes and signs of nervousness.

Victor, 54
Incarcerated: 27 years
Housed: Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, CA

Prison is a very dangerous place, especially in the crowded dayroom where we have to wait until the guards unlock our cell doors. So when my five foot, one inch, hundred and ten pound buddy, Cuba suddenly stopped talking and his sight appeared to see through me, I got a bit nervous. We had been talking for about five minutes and everything was fine. He was telling me about a funny incident that had happened at his job in the kitchen, and we were both laughing. I call him Mr. Magoo, he is a naturally funny guy. His strong Cuban accent and bubbly personality made his conversations extremely funny. That day, he made me laugh so hard I impulsively gave him a slight hug for a second or two, before backing up to continue laughing. That’s when I noticed something odd, “What’s wrong, is there a fight behind me?” I asked him. I quickly turned and scanned the people behind me. Everything seemed normal. The place was packed with inmates waiting for the cell to unlock but no fight or signs of any unusual tension. Cuba simply answered, “Nothing.” I still had some laughter to unleash. However, my little friend was still frozen and staring through me. I looked back again. This time searching more intensely just in case the possible danger was aimed at me. I scanned the dayroom, paying particular attention to people’s hands, looking for weapons, and to eyes and faces to see attitudes and signs of nervousness. Still, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, “What’s wrong Cuba?” I asked again. “You’re making me nervous.” “Nothing” he answered, but he would not look at me. He was still staring straight toward the wall. I moved to his left side trying to see what he was seeing. He was in his 60’s, so I wondered if maybe he was having a stroke. I’ve seen people having strokes, and they just freeze and stay silent. So, I asked him, “Are you okay Cuba? Do you feel okay?” He nodded yes, but remained a statue. “Cuba, please! I’m concerned. You’re getting me nervous. Please tell me what’s wrong?” After a few seconds, he looked at me, and in a very soft and broken tone of voice, he said: “Biktor, I’ve been locked-up for over 23 years and this is the first time someone has ever hugged me.” This time, I was the one frozen and speechless. From that day, and until the day he went home a year later, I hugged him every time I saw him.

Arnoldo, 43

Arnoldo, 43

Meet Arnoldo…

I wanted to create something so pleasurable that I could offer and intrigue God Almighty in His majestic throne made of sterling gold.

Arnoldo, 43
Incarcerated: 17 years
Housed: Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, California

Click here to watch our team create Arnoldo’s recipe.

Crazy Choco Locos Cookie Wheels

I wanted to create something so pleasurable that I could offer and intrigue God Almighty in His majestic throne made of sterling gold. I had to start the melodious and passionate music of Gabriela Boccelli on my old shoddy Jwin stereo (click). 

I tear open (shred) a rack of mouth watering Oreo cookies.

I extract the sweet and mushy icing from each cookie with a spoon and place the icing in an empty white rice bag. 

I threw the wafers (fling fling fling) in a large plastic bag, which I purchased for 45¢ Ramen soup from a building porter. I smash (crunch crunch crunch) the cookie wafers in the bulgy bag. I beat them to a pulp with my fist and palm (thud thud thud) with a king-size almond Hershey’s bar. I hurled (fling) it into the large bag. A delicious and dismembered iced Honey Bun goes into the bag as well. Here I am adding a shot of delightful Taster’s Choice coffee. *Mmm, que rico. The aroma radiating from the bag is gratifying the heavens. Before I plunge the bag of cream icing into the hot water in the hotpot, I add a small amount of margarine so the icing can soften and be pliable. I cast two syrup packets (plunge plunge) we get with lackluster pancakes on Friday mornings into the hot water. After the syrups dance stupendously in the simmering water, I cautiously take them out with my fingers (ouch ouch) and open the syrups with an extracted razor blade (I made sure I discard the blade before the tribunal court adds more time to my 297 year sentence). I’m kindly drizzling them over the exquisite blend of crumbled Oreo wafers, Hershey’s bar, Iced Honey Bun and Taster’s Choice coffee. *Ay, mi precioso Jesus! A delicious aroma is permeating the cell. Now I have to block my outstretched narrow door window because there’s singing emulation, joyous prancing, vibrant music and a sweet aroma in my cell: someone could beg for a cookie! I mix the batch by thoroughly kneading and molding it into a husky ball that looks like a chocolaty sleek dough. I hope everyone enjoys the catchy name I made up for my cookie… Crazy Choco Loco! With my right hand I’m extracting a small size ball from the dough and tailor five thick cookies by spinning them and using my fingers (squeak squeak squeak) until they are perfectly formed. I take out the liquefied icing from the red hot water in the hot pot (boil boil steam). With a spoon I’m stirring (whip whip whip) the sweet fragrant icing in the bag. I spread with glee, the scolding butter cream on top of the cookies; a sweet steamy aroma is now dancing in my velvety nose.  Let’s rip open a bag of M and M’s and put them on top of the dark chocolaty cookies before the icing cools. Pardon me for my lower right lip is exuberantly quivering. We are finally finished with the process of making my phenomenal, delicious and colorful Crazy Choco Locos (angelic choir). One cookie is for me; one cookie for my cellmate; one is for the building officer whom I will give secretly; and one cookie for each  mountain. I can see the two awake mountains with their radiant crowns eagerly peering through my cell window!

 

Crazy Choco Locos Cookie Wheels

Editor’s notes:
Be sure to use an iced Honey Bun, NOT glazed.

Makes 12 cookies

Ingredients
12 Oreo cookies
1 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp maple syrup
2.6-oz king-size Hershey’s Chocolate with Almonds, broken into small pieces
1 4.75-oz package iced Honey Bun
1.5 tsp brewed coffee
1 1.75-oz package M&M Plain or Peanut Candy

Instructions
Separate the Oreo filling from the cookies and place the filling in a small bowl.
Crush the cookies thoroughly by placing them in a storage bag and pounding with a heavy pan, rolling pin or meat pounder.

Remove the icing from the Honey Bun and set aside in a small bowl. Tear the pastry into small pieces. In a medium bowl, combine the crushed cookies, the chocolate pieces, Honey Bun pieces, and coffee. Divide the dough into five sections and form into ½”- thick circles on a baking sheet.

Cook the cookie filling in the saucepan along with the butter and maple syrup
over low heat for about two minutes, until the icing is soft and pliable, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add the reserved Honey Bun icing. Mix until smooth.

Divide the warm icing evenly between the cookies, spreading evenly to cover the entire surface of the cookie. Top with M&M Candies.

Arnoldo, 42

Arnoldo, 42

Meet Arnoldo…

My heart is overwhelmed. I ache knowing I cannot fulfill these desires, but I’m grateful. I’m grateful to God who reminds me how I may still touch this individual with a special prayer on my birthday.

Incarcerated: 16 years

Housed: Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, CA

From time to time while lying in my prison bunk in California, I ponder about another who shares my date of birth or the date closest to it, someone who may be lying in his bunk in a Prison House in Congo, Africa. I’m physically, spiritually and emotionally healthy. But what about him? Aside from his emotional well being, what about the desires of his heart? Does he hear from his family like I do? What did he aspire to be when he was a young lad? What were his life history wounds? When was the last time he had a cold Pepsi with ice? I wish I could be present with him in his yard of scarcity in his prison in the Congo, so he could tell me the deep things of his heart or share with me his inner sorrow. I would  be hesitant to tell him that I could eat a HoneyBun whenever I want or file a grievance if my broccoli is served cold here in this American prison, 9000 miles away from him. Perhaps he would join me in singing a worship song on my guitar and after we could kneel before God Almighty in prayer asking Him for redemption, healing and hope. My heart is overwhelmed. I ache knowing I cannot fulfill these desires, but I’m grateful. I’m grateful to God who reminds me how I may still touch this individual with a special prayer on my birthday, March 12th.

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