A Bird In The Hand

Deseases of Cannaries Looking Outwards

 Books by Robert Stroud are still in print today.

The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud raised and studied birds while he was incarcerated at Leavenworth.  A convicted murderer, he published Diseases of Canaries in 1933, which was smuggled out of prison and sold.  He even ran a successful business from inside prison.  While not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz he instead wrote a history of the penal system.  He was incarcerated for the last 54 years of his life and spent 42 of those years in solitary confinement.  A dangerous, violent man who eventually became one of the best-known examples of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the federal prison system.

While no one is raising birds in their cells for sale in the MDOC, I’ve seen a few that had the birds feeding out of their hands in the big yard.  Prisons are generally not located in heavily populated areas and are surrounded by farms, fields and forests.  The result is that there is a fair amount of wild life present.  Deer, wild turkeys, muskrats, foxes, opossum, raccoon, skunk, chipmunks, and dozens of species of birds.  It is the small animals and birds that can come and go as they please through the perimeter, obviously the larger critters will only be visible outside of the fence, but a deer did get inside the fence one time.

I’ve watched guys hold out their hand and feed birds with crumbs of bread taken from the chow hall.  Standing still with their arm outstretched near a bird perched on a fence or bench.  The bird will hop onto the hand and feed for seconds at a time.  Red Winged Black Birds, Chickadees, and other song birds that to some extent have become accustomed to humans can be coaxed from feeding nearby to feeding out of hand.  No sudden movements, no noise, just patience.

Birds perch on fences, however in prison that can be dangerous since there is usually razor wire involved. I’ve seen countless one-legged birds hopping about. That’s a high price to pay for hanging out in prison just for the sake of a free meal.

Chipmunks are another species that benefits from inmate’s willingness to feed the animals, which is of course against the rules.  Chipmunks hide in holes and are nervous by nature but can be coaxed out with a few peanuts.  I’ve never seen one feed from a hand, but there was a game to see how close you could get to one.

Prison being prison, not every story is cute and cuddly. While I was at my first level I facility, several inmates got into trouble for catching, killing and trying to cook a duckling in the microwave.

Large open grassy areas tend to attract geese and ducks, especially if there are even small temporary bodies of standing water nearby.  The big yard may look like a tempting location to raise a family.  Inmates will step aside and allow the mother duck to lead her ducklings from one location to another across the yard.  Ducklings grow fat from all the bread crumbs tossed their way.  Free from predators 1ike foxes, hawks become the greatest threat.  The ducks are closely watched and any loss to the family group is noted.  Some guys find great joy in in watching the ducklings mature and are saddened when they fly away at the end of the summer.  I think a part of these inmates who have invested their time and emotions into these ducklings flies away with them when they leave.  You can see it in their eyes as they watch the ducks experience freedom that the inmates can only dream about.

Unlike Hogan’s Heroes or Shawshank Redemption the MDOC doesn’t use guard dogs.  I’ve heard of dogs being brought in from the state police to search for drugs but that is about it. There are however several facilities that have begun raising puppies for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Writeups in the newspapers speak highly of these programs and the success rate that these dog programs have. They were going to set one up at my last level I facility but the new warden changed his mind.  The inmates had already been selected and moved into a housing unit and the kennels had been built in the housing unit, but no dogs. There was one dog that came to live in the prison however.  An officer had passed away after an extended illness and her dog was brought in in anticipation of the dog program.  While not actually part of the program the dog was to be looked after and cared for by the inmates.  It became the most popular individual on the compound. I would see it sometimes being taken for walks around the track during yard time.  In the winter someone even made it a winter coat by cutting up a prisoner coat to make one with little sleeves for the front legs and an orange stripe across the shoulders just like the rest of the prisoners had.  Doted on and spoiled rotten with lavish attention the dog was the center of attention everywhere it went.  It became a sort of therapy dog for everyone at that prison. No one would dare to abuse or in any way hurt the dog or they would suffer the wrath of several hundred dog lovers.

Mich Dog
Photo: Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press

They say that dogs are man’s best friend and that they don’t judge us but give unconditional affection.  For many in prison that type of attention is exactly what prisoners need.  In a place where there is so much negativity to find something as relentlessly positive as a wagging tail.  To have something to care for and about when it feels like you’re forgotten and alone.  To have a reason to do something for someone besides yourself.  To be responsible for the well-being of another creature when your own is under duress.  If one dog could do that what would 20 dogs do? The fact is that dogs make a positive contribution to the facilities that have them.

Mich Dog Program
Photo: J. Scott Park / AP

There is a tremendous demand for these dogs and it would seem that while having the dogs would make for more work the dividends paid by the positive mood they bring that every warden should be clamoring to get a program at their facility.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and you need to ask why.  Just like Robert Stroud who benefited from a warden who saw the value in his bird research and gave him a second cell to house all his birds only to lose it all when a new warden came and didn’t see the value and thought that he only deserved punishment and harsh treatment.  It all goes back to the question: Is prison only about punishment or should rehabilitation be the focus?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s