Orphan Survival Stories Index |
THE JAIL BIRD
"THE YARD WILL BE CLOSED IN THIRTY MINUTES," screamed one of the many loud speakers hanging on the quarter-mile steel wall of the prison.
My duties as x-ray technician at the prison hospital were completed for the day. I headed down the long steel corridor looking for my friend Wendall LeRoy Archer.
LeRoy and I were from two different states. Even though I was a state prisoner, both of us were incarcerated at the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary at Lompoc, California. LeRoy for stealing a car, and me for purchasing a six-pack of beer at a party. It was a party where several under age teens were caught drinking alcohol.
I shouted as I saw Wendall coming out of the library.
"Let's hit the yard and get some air for a while," he said as he walked my way.
We approached the two open steel doors, turned left, and walked out into the yard. Off in the distance I could see the two, twenty-foot chain-link fences with circular, barbed, razor wire that surrounded the large prison. Between the two fences, the ground had been sprayed with a white power substance. Anyone trying to escape, who might make it across the first fence, would leave a white trail of footprints.
Several hundred yards to my right, and to my left, were two guard towers. Each stretched some forty to fifty feet into the air. They were round with a glass type house sitting on top of massive concrete pillars. Guards sat atop with automatic weapons in case of escape, or some sort of major disturbance on the yard.
The yard was filled with about six hundred inmates, each group divided into various sections. The "Whites" in one area, "Blacks" in another and the "Mexicans" in their section. In addition to these groups, there were the gangs. Anyone moving about the yard would do so at a reasonable distance from the gangs. Even accidentally bumping into someone on the yard would be looked upon as an insult. Such an incident could get you shanked (stabbed), beaten, or even raped.
Carefully we walked out to an open area, sat down on the ground, and began to talk. As we talked, we watched the weight lifters in the weight area. Several groups were throwing a baseball back and forth. Several others were pitching a rubber ball against a cement wall, as though they were playing handball. Other prisoners were running around the track trying to stay in shape.
When prisoners are on the yard, you always keep your eyes open and you stay alert. You never allow anyone to walk up behind you. If someone were to walk up behind you -- you immediately stand up and face him down.
Though there are hundreds of different conversations taking place, you are not allowed to eavesdrop. Even if you overhear the conversation, you had best not look or act as though you heard anything. Even looking in the direction of a conversation might start a serious, violent confrontation.
As we talked, we noticed a large group of men gathering at the cement wall. Within a minute, almost everyone on the yard was walking in that direction. As Wendall and I stood up, I noticed the guards in the towers walk out onto the cement ramp, each with rifle in hand.
Within a minute or so, word had spread throughout the yard that a bird had flown into the cement wall and injured itself. We slowly made our way over to the wall. Sure enough, there was a bird lying on the ground with an injured wing. One of the muscle-bound weight lifters reached down, picked up the bird, and began to stroke its head. The prisoners packed in tight to see what was happening.
As I stood there, I looked back and forth at the faces of every prisoner. Something had changed, even if only for a moment. No one was on guard and no one was worried about being hurt. All that seemed to matter was the injured bird.
"DISPENCE AND RETURN TO YOUR STATIONS," sounded the loud speaker.
Slowly the crowd started to move apart. I watched as the Captain came walking across the yard, swinging a bully-club in his hand. As he reached the wall, he pushed the club into the chest of the man and ordered the weight lifter to put the injured bird down. The large man carefully placed the bird on the ground, and then he just stood there. The Captain raised his club and struck the bird in the head. The bird fluttered its wings and flew around in a small circle for several seconds. Then it lay lifeless on the ground. In the stillness, its beak opened and closed several times as its head slowly lowered to the ground. All at once, there came a cry of protest from the entire crowd. A sound like I had never heard before. They were not sounds of madness, but cries of pain and sorrow.
Again, I watched the faces of these hardened men as they cried out in protest. I watched as several of them covered their faces and sat down on the ground. The guards in the towers loaded and raised their rifles. Gradually the yard started to empty.
That night was not like other nights in the prison. There was no laughing or talking between cells. All was silent and quiet. I laid in my cell thinking about what I had seen that day. I wondered why such a thing would be so dramatic to these men. I wondered how many of these men had been struck, beaten, or knocked to the ground when they were helpless, defenseless children.
That seemed to be an unusual thing when I was in prison. Almost any crime would be accepted or tolerated. Anything goes except hurting a child, or a defenseless animal. I wonder what it was that I saw in their faces that day. I wonder what it was that made these hardened men open their hearts for that moment.
I never said anything to anyone about the bird. I do not think it was ever mentioned again. The next day all was back to normal. Everyone was once again on guard and watching their backs. However, I do know this; I learned a very good lesson that day. I saw no matter how hard and mean a man can be, there is something somewhere, that can touch the inside of every man's heart.