Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Cat Man

"My greatest wish is to be the best person I can be – – and not know it."

We call him Bobcat. Every semi-wild cat on the unit knows him by sight and knows his schedule. He's about the only person they let pet them and even hold them. Most all the cats and kittens have known him their entire lives, and he's always been their favorite human being. Because Bobcat feeds and cares for them all with passion.

Prisoners who get no financial support from friends or family have to hustle to earn money in the form of commissary items – – soups, coffee, stamps, snacks – – or go without. They draw greeting cards, wash laundry, sell their psych drugs, steal food from the kitchen or bleach from the laundry, right legal writs, sell tobacco or weed or dip for the shock- collars, or do anything else they can to generate a little cash. Bobcat's hustle is doing laundry (mostly sheets which, like underwear, you're better off washing yourself in here), and the only currency he'll accept are one dollar pouches of tuna and mackerel, which of course, all go to the cats. He never hustles for himself.

He does his best to make sure he has at least one serving a day for them, and he often has two. To help fill their bellies and make the most of each tuna pouch, he crumbles biscuits or cornbread snuck from the chow hall and mixes it in with the fish, adding just enough water to make it the perfect consistency. Sometimes he'll add cooked vegetables that he has carefully chopped up into many cat sized bites. And he makes sure there are always plenty of water dishes set around the unit. He has a lot of mouths to feed; he works hard for his kitties.

It's a pretty amazing sight to see all these cats, who let no one else near them, come running when Bobcat calls. They climb all over him as he sits on the ground, letting him scratch behind their ears and along their spines while he checks them over for any injuries, which he dutifully does his best to treat. It's funny to see cats running around with bandaged legs and ears and know that it's Bobcat's work.

And during the winter months or during any bad weather, Bobcat does his best to make sure the cats are warm and safe. He brings food to all their various dens throughout the unit and creates winter beds for them from borrowed blankets. In the spring he takes the blankets up again and freshens up the dens before birthing time. Though he's never been able to be present for the birth of a litter of kittens, you can be sure he's there to fuss over them as soon as possible. I imagine most every cat here has known Bobcat since they were just kittens. And because he has a life sentence without parole, he's bound to be here for their deaths as well. He told me that he's had a few cats come to him over the years and die in his arms.

Bobcat doesn't really talk much. He's not a people person. He did sit down with me for a "interview" for this blog. Like most of us in prison, he was an alcoholic and drug addict, and he committed his crime – – a senseless murder – – while completely out of his mind on drugs. Like most of us, he is deeply remorseful for it. Not a day goes by, he says, when he doesn't regret his former life of drugs and alcohol and immorality. I can relate when he claims to have been possessed by an evil spirit when he killed his friend. Despite the severity of his crime, Bobcat is really good at heart, and I, for one, am certain that he's no longer a threat to society. He's been clean and sober for too many years now to ever go back to his old ways. Given another chance at life, he'd like to work for the Humane Society or an animal rescue center.

Bobcat is a very spiritual person. Though he doesn't read much, he's read his Bible many times over the years. He carries the pocket-sized "At the Feet of the Master" from the Theosophical Society with him everywhere. Though he doesn't meditate per se, he prays and gives thanks to God throughout the day. Like most prisoners, he spends a lot of time reflecting on the person he once was and would like to be. Although he keeps to himself and doesn't care for many people in here and he doesn't enjoy smalltalk, he is a kind and caring person. Taking care of the unit's cats is his way of showing love and compassion and making a contribution.

Many other inmates are also animal lovers and make donations to Bobcat's "ministry". Everyone makes sure that he's able to scrounge up enough for the daily fish and bread offering, either by giving him plenty of laundry to do or by anonymously leaving pouches of tuna and mackerel on his bunk. Some help him obtain blankets, bandages, and ointments and such. And some even make little cat toys for him to bring and play with the kittens. So it's really a collective effort to make sure the cats here are well taken care of.

"Love and do what you will." – – St. Augustine

Some of the nicest people you could hope to meet are here in prison. Granted, there are some pretty horrible characters here but the vast majority are just average people who simply made a mistake or lost their way in life, usually the of drug and alcohol abuse. For some, their only crime was being an addict. Regardless of the crime, persons time in prison is an unparalleled opportunity to get their head on straight and their life back on track. It's a time to regain their sobriety and sanity. It's a time for m soul-searching and self-examination. It's a time to relive every mistake you every made, no matter how small, and feel remorse for each one. In short, prison can change a person forever and for better.

As I've mentioned before, prison is a lot like a monastery, and many of us prison monks live lives of quiet contemplation, study, and prayer. To spend years like this, patiently living one day at a time, with humility and remorse, amdist hardships and trials, deeply affects a person forever. Though we may have once been extremely screwed up people, enough to get us locked up behind bars, we've changed. Redemption is real. The evidence for this is everywhere in here. Unfortunately, the discrepancy between this reality in the public's perception is huge, and not enough people from the outside world know enough or care enough to help free prisoners who no longer deserve or need to be punished. Instead, the genuinely good among us get lumped together with the bad. To people in the free world, anyone in prison must be a dangerous character.

Contrary to how things are portrayed in TV and film, most everyone in here is pretty polite to one another. Though at first it may be only to avoid a fight or something, for those of us who have been here a for a while , it has become a demonstration of mutual respect and consideration. For the most part, fights are limited to inner – and inter – gang – related problems or are instigated by belligerent guards. As a general rule, prisoners don't want to cause any problems with anybody – – they just want to do their time and go home, if ever. It's the "lifers" – – the supposedly most dangerous and feared with nothing to lose – –who are usually the wisest and most easy-going among us all, resigned to their fate and doing what they can be the best people they can be under the circumstances.

It's the younger inmates with too much energy to burn and not enough wisdom who act out and get into wrecks. I think everyone over 40 should get special consideration for parole, just because studies confirm that the older and wiser and more settled a person becomes, the less likely they are to commit crime. Unfortunately,I see too many guys in their 70s and older, who are obviously no longer a threat to anyone , walking/ shuffling around the unit. Most of these older inmates have been more than punished for their crimes and have earned a chance to spend their final days in freedom.

But to release anyone early is politically unsound. What would the voters think? After all, it's important to be "tough on crime." "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." And let's not forget, "Don't mess with Texas.". Our politicians and bureaucrats are afraid to release prisoners for fear of upsetting the public. However,I don't think they are giving people enough credit: they themselves may not have any idea what true empathy and compassion are, but the common man does; they themselves may only think in terms of popularity and electability, but the average citizen takes into consideration fairness and morality and common sense. It's a shame that not enough people can visit prisons and go behind the scenes of our justice system. If they did, they would come to learn that too many people are being imprisoned for far too long. They wouldn't be upset at all to see prisoners being granted early parole if they merited it. They may even begin actively campaigning for new sentencing and parole laws.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not leaders,only followers. And , unfortunately too, the news and other media do their best to entertain/scare the hell out of people and shape public perception negatively regarding prison. Stories of good people being punished unjustly or who have redeemed themselves while in prison don't make the headlines. Maybe this blog will help shed some light on the subject. I hope to change the stereotypes of people in prison and remove the public fear of parolees . I also hope to raise both awareness of and empathy for people being punished excessively. There's really nothing worse than losing one's freedom. Like Bobcat, there are many thousands of us across the country who truly do deserve another chance at life and who want so badly to make a contribution to society rather than just rot away behind these walls and razor wire. And to maybe fall in love again before we die. We may not be the smartest bunch around, but our hearts and minds have been forever changed for the better. And we're counting on people like you to take notice.

Thanks as always for listening and caring.

– – Eric

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