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.

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.

Jennifer, 52

Jennifer, 52

Meet Jennifer…

I’m not defined by the crimes I committed or worse things I’ve done. Rather, I’ve actually defied them by learning to accept responsibility, to have empathy for others, and remorse for my past harmful behavior.

 

Incarcerated: 32 years
Housed: Salinas Valley State Prison, Soledad, California
I’m an incarcerated activist, student, writer and worker. I’m also an anarchist-feminist queer and transwoman. Addiction, abuse, and criminal thinking led me to prison. I’ve survived abuse, brutality, Covid-19 outbreaks and witnessed prison deaths! I’ve survived the most adverse circumstances imaginable, including over a decade in control units and solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and Folsom. I’ve experienced a lot of harm, addiction and trauma, but I’ve also found the path of recovery. I’ve learned coping skills, built genuine friendships. I’m grateful for my lived experiences as a transwoman in California men’s prisons, which has not killed me but made me stronger! I’ve found out a lot about myself. I can be quite resilient and I have many opportunities to advocate for human rights and social justice. I communicate with my family and friends regularly. They would be surprised to know that I’m not defined by the crimes I committed or worse things I’ve done. Rather, I’ve actually defied them by learning to accept responsibility, to have empathy for others, and remorse for my past harmful behavior.

My cellmate, Peter, has a positive impact on me. He and I have been together for over three years. We have shared friendship, intimacy, love, and solidarity. We have a mutually beneficial and positive impact on eachother. He helps me get through each day, keeps me on the right track, and provides comfort. My next parole board hearing in July of 2025 has been my motivation to work toward positive personal change, and eventual freedom. I’m excited to share that at my recent classification review, I was told I qualified for a “Behavioral Override” to transfer to a level three, medium-security yard. This change of circumstance is grounds for a Petition to Advance (PTA) which would move my next hearing up to July of 2023, two years early ! 🙂 I will miss Peter, but I have hope that I may have a greater chance for a parole grant and release from prison captivity 🙂 Things are better than ever!

 

Receive more inspiring stories and news from incarcerated people around the world.