When the scruffy orange cat showed up in the prison yard, I was one of the first to go out there and pet it. I hadn’t touched a cat or a dog in over 20 years. I spent at least 20 minutes crouched down by the Dumpster behind the kitchen as the cat rolled around and luxuriated beneath my attention. What he was expressing outwardly I was feeling inwardly.
It was an amazing bit of grace to feel him under my hand and know that I was enriching the life of another creature with something as simple as my care. I believe that caring for something or someone in need is what makes us human.
Over the next few days, I watched other prisoners responding to the cat. Every yard period, a group of prisoners gathered there. They stood around talking and taking turns petting the cat. These were guys you wouldn’t usually find talking to each other. Several times I saw an officer in the group — not chasing people away, but just watching and seeming to enjoy it along with the prisoners.
Bowls of milk and water appeared, along with bread, wisely placed under the edge of the Dumpster to keep the sea gulls from getting it. The cat was obviously a stray and in pretty bad shape. One prisoner brought out his small, blunt-tipped scissors, and trimmed burrs and matted fur from his coat.
People said, “That cat came to the right place. He’s getting treated like a king.” This was true. But as I watched, I was also thinking about what the cat was doing for us.
There’s a lot of talk about what’s wrong with prisons in America. We need more programs; we need more psychologists or treatment of various kinds. Some even talk about making prisons more kind, but I think what we really need is a chance to practice kindness ourselves. Not receive it, but give it.
After more than two decades here, I know that kindness is not a value that’s encouraged. It’s often seen as weakness. Instead the culture encourages keeping your head down, minding your own business and never letting yourself be vulnerable.
For a few days a raggedy cat disrupted this code of prison culture. They’ve taken him away now, hopefully to a decent home — but it did my heart good to see the effect he had on me and the men here. He didn’t have a Ph.D., he wasn’t a criminologist or a psychologist, but by simply saying, “I need some help here,” he did something important for us. He needed us — and we need to be needed. I believe we all do.