“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.”
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.