David Beck-Brown - Writer - Wild Prison Life

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David Beck-Brown

  Wild Prison Life - Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown
(Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown)

Wild Prison Life

By David Beck-Brown

A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) Newsletter
July, 2007

Black Dog is out of prison. Prison was his home. He resisted two attempts by government officials to remove him from prison grounds. The third attempt took him down with tranquilizer darts. He's now gone. No one knew at the time he was living with a broken leg and now he has injuries from the darts. Some of the inmates and State employees are pooling their money to pay for his operation. Many inmates use their jailhouse names like Cowboy, Parrot, Boston, Pirate, Big Jack and so forth. But for him, it wasn't a nickname. Black Dog was big and intimidating and kept to himself. He never talked.

Black Dog was born on prison grounds and never experienced life outside of it. He would lie in the shade beneath parked cars in the staff parking lot. Once I saw him somewhere where he shouldn't have been, but I'm not talking. Inmates would toss food to him and one employee brought him a blanket and a bowl of water. Black Dog would just as soon lie on the exposed dirt than on that blanket. He was tough.

While leaving the staff entrance I once heard a correctional officer ask if that big black dog was any where around. This cop would stand face to face with any inmate, but not to Black Dog.

But a dog roaming on prison grounds doesn't make a professional image and Black Dog, the unofficial prison mascot, had to go. For over eight years he has been watching over the prison. There is a lot of wildlife in prison. The swallows return yearly and build their nests of mud under the eaves above the sidewalk in the main plaza. Like Black Dog, swallows are survivors. The eaves have been screened off to keep the little birds away, so they build their nests on the screen. Why not? The nests are the size of grapefruits and are tightly lined up like beads strung on a necklace. It's a wondrous site seeing the birds flock like a swarm of bees darting into the prison yard and back again. Once their nests are established, the government officials can no longer remove them. Black Dog wasn't so lucky.

It's not uncommon for a mud nest to crack, break and a small, flightless bird fall to the ground. They don't like being on the ground. I was standing close to a fallen bird that was chirping wildly, when he suddenly jumped onto my shoe and wouldn't get off. I walked a few steps to get him to a safer place. Another fledgling landed on a correctional officer's shoulder and wouldn't leave. The officer was manning a locked gate, letting inmates in and out, patting them down for contraband and weapons, with a little bird on his shoulder. He was assisted by a sympathetic co-worker who got the bird to jump onto his arm. He then took it to a grassy area and gently placed it on the ground. Every time he attempted to walk away the little creature followed. The man eventually darted away in a cold run.

One inmate asked me if I would take care of a parrot he'd caught. I told him I'd contact groups that care for them. Another inmate left a paper container on my desk. I told him I couldn't accept things from inmates. He asked me to open it and when I did, I saw it contained a baby sparrow.

Walking through a prison yard and having a flock of red winged black birds, flying close to the ground like a rushing wave rolling over and passing to the left and right of you is an amazing experience. They will perch themselves safely within the sharp loops of certina wire and like a soulful chorus make melodic throttling sounds.  Then there are the seagulls, pigeons, black birds, a duck or two, ravens, the bunny rabbits, lizards and the rattlesnake I nearly stepped on, but no dogs. The prison has signs warning of rattlesnakes. I saw a man holding a live rattlesnake by its tail. Prison officers can shut down a yard of inmates; a hawk can shut down the entire bird population of a prison yard.

Inmates will smuggle tarantulas into their cells and construct a network of interlocking chambers from plastic bottles so the creatures could have a place to roam. Then there was the inmate with a pet moth and the one who captured fourteen gophers. One inmate caught a mouse and took it to his cell using his shirt sleeve to carry it. The movement of the mouse was visible beneath his shirt as it ran up and down his arm.

There are many animals in prison, but not Black Dog. He's out. 


David Beck-Brown is the Prison Reform chair with A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and has worked with incarcerated convicts since 1977.