The dogs marched under the barbed razor and electric fencing, across the prison yard and into Cellblock Five. Paws for Life, a program of Karma Rescue and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, had arrived at California State Prison, Lancaster, to train inmates to care for once-condemned hounds.
I’d known the dogs were coming as I’d helped clean out the 20 pens on the back of the cellblock, each pen twice the size of my cell. We polished the bars and the door handles of the pens and revitalized the dead grass in front of the building. By the time the dogs arrived, the cellblock, which had been used as the “hole,” had freshly scrubbed floors and freshly painted walls and doors.
Although I helped transform the space, and knew that the dogs had been days away from being euthanized when they were rescued and sent to prison, I’d been a bit reluctant, not wanting to see them locked up in cages. Still, waking up to the smell, sound and sight of the dogs and their wagging tails was like holding hands with longtime friends, walking down the dry Mojave River and being licked by sunshine on my face after a long stay in solitary confinement.
I grew up with dogs in the free world and raised greyhounds for rabbit hunting. Growing up in the high desert, some semi-wild dogs were my best friends. I ran with a pack of them up and down the dry river. We greeted each other like wolves at dawn and we howled at the moon at dusk. The dogs nurtured the poet and beast inside me, before I knew I was a poet. They gave me a purpose when I had none.
You should have seen Campy, Buddy and Big Sister run down jack rabbits. They were no less elegant than cheetahs running down gazelles on the African plains – tragically beautiful.
Sometimes the rabbits ran back toward me, with their sweaty long ears and fur soaked as if they had just hopped out of a foamy pool. I’d see the fear in the jack rabbits’ marble eyes. The catch was like when two stars clashed and melted into one, becoming a black hole, sorrowful and lovely at the same time.
A few weeks before the dogs arrived at the prison, I asked a prospective trainer if the dog beds he’d been making would be kept in the cells. No – he told me that animal rights groups had insisted that the cells were too small for the dogs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not hating on the dogs. I agree they must have the proper space to be a dog – to bark, wag and howl. And I know the hounds have not broken any laws and are not lifers.
Still these cells, judged too small for a single dog, house two human beings. Animal rights activists would have a fit and picket governors, wardens or even God, if a dog were forced to live in a cell-sized space with other dogs they didn’t get along with – the conditions we prisoners live in.
I’m not hating, but some folks here are. They notice all the love and pampering the hounds receive; they’re jealous of the cotton blankets and soft throw rugs. The dogs have their own exercise yard and huge play pens. We don’t.
Each dog has its own water trough, next to a sleeping cot, and their own igloo and little swimming pool. They bathe in a tub big enough for a human. It’s difficult not to be envious of the high-priced meat and vegetable logs, the high-grade mackerel and the cheese, jerky and peanut butter treats the hounds get.
I play flute for the hounds: Randall, Shelby, Eddie and Chuy. They looked peaceful, heads rested on paws. If allowed, I would be the official flute player and poet for the hounds, helping them rest and sleep.
The first batch of dogs has already graduated and been adopted out of prison. Stay free, my friends.
Spoon Jackson is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for murder at California State Prison, Lancaster, and is the co-author of “By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives.”
Editor’s note: This column has been revised to correct several errors. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says that the prison has 20 pens for dogs, that they are twice the size of a two-person cell and that chiller fans are for staff, inmates and dogs.