During my seven years of incarceration, I have rarely seen much in the way of kindness and the human spirit. There have been a few surprise moments. These usually revolve around a surprise birthday meal, a Christmas gift from an unexpected source, or the unexpected dispensation of compassion to someone truly in need. But, for the most part, inmates aren’t exactly the template for humanity. Well, I think I should say that a significant number of inmates don’t seem to act like decent people. There are others, too, who always act in a compassionate and upstanding manner. But there are few such persons in American prisons.
The reason this comes to a head is because of an internal conflict that I’ve been having over the last several weeks. Several years ago I started watching the pigeons around the prison. I would toss them a bit of bread here or a soup there and enjoy the idea of helping out another creature that was worse off than me. Their need, and seemingly thanks, drew me to them. Thus my attention was fixed.
Over the last couple of years I’ve become a bird watcher of sorts; something I was never outside of prison. I’ve seen pigeons on the Recreation Yard in their artificial, yet regular, habitat. I’ve seen them take care of one another. I’ve seen them protect one another. And I’ve yet to see a pigeon do something which I would consider evil, mean, or deviant. They, the feral flock of pigeons that is, just seem to be generally good; a far cry from many everyday interactions in the prison context. As such, I’ve grown to like the pigeons, enjoy their company, and find a bit of compassion — compassion hidden away in my heart — by participating, however little it might be, in their lives.
I’ve seen Little Whitey Ford and his wife, Betty Ford (pigeons mate for life, so they are never far from one another), try for months on end to make a successful nest, finally to guard their sole egg in shifts, around the clock. I’ve seen Momma Whiteface, the matriarch of the flock, showing her chicks the ropes even when they might appear a bit too slow to even learn how to eat. And I’ve seen Speckles the Clown, a truly airheaded pigeon, get hit on the head with a peanut, and turn the wrong way in pursuit of it, usually to never find it before another bird munches it down. Terry Dactyl, the giant racing pigeon that flew in during a hurricane, he will stomp right up to me to demand a handful of peanuts (I can’t help but laugh at his seriousness about it). In short, after watching the flock for so long, I almost feel as though I am in some way a part of it. As such, I am protective of the birds. And this is where my internal conflict arises.
There have been several instances of inmates harming the birds. I’ve seen Whitey and Betty attacked with brooms. I’ve seen Rorschach get stuck in stairwells and swung at with shoes and jackets and tennis balls. And I’ve seen compound workers — those who clean up the central area of the prison — reach up into Two Spots’ and her mate’s nest, remove their two little eggs, weigh the little eggs in their hands, and throw them on the ground. Since I feel as though I am a part of their flock — after all, they’ve shown me compassion which is rarely seen elsewhere — I feel protective of them and want to thwart those who might want to harm them. As big as Terry Dactyl might be, he’s no match for a steel-toed boot, and it enrages me when I see my fellow prisoners try to hurt these gentle souls. Amazingly enough, the ones who seem to harm them the most often are the social lepers, those who were truly bullied and beaten because of their socially stunted ways and ill-advised affections.
In response to instances like this, I’ve had discussions with my good Buddhist friend about what to do. He’s strongly of the belief that violence to meet any means is not a means at all. That it’s ok to resist, when necessary, but that to harm another being for their actions simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and harm. Although I suggest that to do harm to those that do harm would be an act of effectuating karma, he disagrees. And he might very well be correct. As such, I do no violence to the idiots who harm the birds, but I certainly do grind my teeth as I begrudgingly resist and it certainly does hurt my very soul to see the flock harmed. Instead of visiting righteous violence on the wrong-doers, I explain to them that the birds mean them no harm and that if they would leave the birds alone, the birds would leave them alone, too. But the attacks on the pigeon community have not stopped, as there are other human attackers to take their places.
So, I’ve stepped up my resistance. I’ve made it clear to several of the offenders that what they are doing truly harms the birds, and thus, me. I even caught one of them who had a pigeon in his fist. In moments like this, I find it truly challenging to do no harm. Luckily, a quick, “Squeeze the bird and I’m going to squeeze you” seems to foot the bill. But it never seems to end. Just an hour ago I witnessed an inmate with a broom destroying yet another nest. Will these ignorant fools ever stop? While I disagree with the concept of locking people away for years on end, I’m glad that these deviants can’t get a hold of anything more substantial than a pigeon, though the pigeons are plenty substantial in my mind.
While most of the time I write about the law and its implications in the corrections context, I too have to live in the corrections context. And when I am at my desk writing at 8 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon, I sometimes look out my window and see these idiot compound workers engaged in such deviant and simply evil behaviors. It really makes life challenging. I see the pigeons as my pets, after all, and I would not so much as allow someone to harm my cat (her name’s Kink) or dog (his name’s Zeke) than to allow someone to harm Little Whitey Ford, Betty Ford, Momma Whiteface, Rorschach, Speckles the Clown, or any other member of the flock. But I still must strive to do no harm. I just hope that I can either not see these acts, or be successful in my persuasive abilities. If not, I know not. I’m just not wired to allow anyone to harm another creature just because they can, regardless of whether the creature is a pigeon or a person. This is a problematic trait to have when in prison.
At least, there is some level of compassion. Some level of humanity. And this compassion and humanity are rarely seen in the human incarcerated population, but in the flock of feral pigeons. Might I grow through this compassion and come to foster it in myself. May others do the same. Until then, I’ll be seeing Baby Whitey and Two Spots on the way to chow. Perhaps I’ll even see Speckles the Clown, too.