Recently there has been a fair wind blowing life into the men at the Taft Correctional Satellite Camp facility — a breath of the human spirit. It has come in the form of four legs, short stature, and floppy ears. Sprocket, our very own contra-dog. There is something quintessentially human about scratching the belly of a dog; about walking down a path with a dog at your left heel (or right); about having a dog to pet or watch as he gives chase to the local wildlife (or his tail).
Inmates understand dehumanization. Inmates live being dehumanized. The experiences are countless that contribute to our dehumanization: being naked repeatedly in front of other inmates or correctional staff; living in and as a zoo exhibit for ‘visitors’ to come and observe; feeding at troughs filled with USDA F-quality meats after waiting in lines that stretch football fields; being ripped from cells or off of yards; having possessions ransacked or ruined; being told lies or patronized. These are all common and shared experiences of us on the inside that leaves us, well, less than whole; less than human.
Then there are those rare but beautiful moments of clarity where a man on the inside, a man at the bottom, can feel human again — even if for just a moment. Sometimes, a simple cup of coffee can have this effect. Those of us with extensive time in the dirtier, intense world of county jails know the question: “gotta shot?” (of coffee) is tantamount to asking: can you help me feel human? A cup filled with that aroma, warmth, and memories can seem to shed the orange jumpsuits, the blue smocks, the sheet-less bed mats, the cinderblock surroundings into momentary forgetfulness.
These moments, these seconds where a man of the wrong club can feel human, are treasured. During my 2,125 days of incarceration, there have been several of these cups of coffee… and some come in other forms: visits, camaraderie, shared meals. These moments, because of their scarcity, have little ability to prevent inevitable change from occurring due to the reality of incarcerated life. Nonetheless, all inmates are on the watchtower looking for a sign of the next possible human experience.
Sprocket has been with us eight weeks this time, which is quite a pull for a contra-dog. Several years ago he made it three months before the privately owned corrections company staff had him rolled up via their associates the Furry Pinkertons. Sprocket isn’t a dog that any of us would ever own on the streets, which is fitting. Because like us, he is unwanted. He can and does feel at home amongst humans cast out and treated as other-than-human. He is a small mixed mutt, mostly a Jack Russell, with white and brown paint (no socks). He trots around a compound of 550 enemies of the state (designated ‘community custody’) a prince among kings; garnering attention, food, countless offers of a lap or even a nap, and plenty of playmates. All inmates, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Others cannot help but smile. Because at the root of it, Sprocket makes us feel human, even though he is but a dog.
On the occasion I have been blessed by the personal presence of Sprocket, petting him and his lil floppy ears has flooded my mind (and alleged heart) with memories and emotion. Memories of Frank, my dog I rescued from my business partner Scott, a bull terrier of epic energy who loved my infant and toddler boys. Memories of my own childhood demon-dog King Bailey. Of camping trips, holidays past, my parents, sisters, of human life. Then Sprocket is off, chasing the next Frasier house guest.
Sometimes, Sprocket forgets what team he is on. He belongs to us, the inmates, the left behind, the behind the fencers. The staff and correctional officers have their own dogs and their own homes. But Sprocket seems to have a different perception of things. On occasion, he has been known to trot next to kitchen workers returning to the units, ears happily flopping, looking up at the men, and … barking. Poor ole Sprocket can just smell the bacon, and he wants some. Problem is, the security staff isn’t that oblivious and promptly pulls over my brothers-in-khaki and detains them for alleged theft from the kitchen. Sprocket, unwittingly, has aided the enemy.
But we forgive quickly, us inmates. And not because of some righteousness inside of inmates, but because we are hoping, in fact banking on others to forgive us as we walk out back onto those streets. None of us came in on winning streaks, we know what it’s like to mess up. So as counts clear, as doors get unlocked, the only question is: out of which housing unit will Sprocket lead the charge from? A little bit of human to make me smile 1,925 days away from my release from the pound.
If you’d like to contact this author directly, please write to:
Christopher Warren #17343-055
Taft Correctional Facility, A4C-58L
PO Box 7001
Taft, CA 93268