Having spent more than two decades here in Eastham, a Texas prison, I would have sworn the walls around my heart and emotions were unbreachable. Hardened convict? I thought so, until I found out differently when a grey and black tabby cat came prissing into my life and my walls came tumbling down.
Eastham prison is unusual in having such a large population of feral cats roaming the grounds. Most are glad to mooch a meal and many will repay your kindness by allowing themselves to be petted. Rarely will they come inside to eat and lounge in comfort. Only one made the halls and day rooms her territory.
Some prisoners catch baby sparrows out of their nests in the outside recreation cages, climbing the fences into the razor wire, chancing cuts and cases, so they can keep them in their tiny cells as companions. For many prisoners, these tiny creatures are the only love they’ve had in years. It’s not so surprising that they’d take the chances they do when you see it that way.
I’ve watched my fellow prisoners make pets of every variety of lizard species, train mice to live willingly in the confines of their desktops, carry frogs and snakes in their pockets and bats under their shirts. One prisoner even had a large painted turtle that thought being carried around was normal as he stuck his neck out full length and paddled the air as if swimming. I never had an urge to have a pet here, where officials can confiscate them as contraband. Why would I share my food with such unappreciative creatures? I found my peers’ [efforts to have pets] humorous, but it turns out, they had the last laugh.
You couldn’t really miss Olivia roaming the north end. She was queen of her realm, or thought she was. Warden Bell was witnessed calling her to him to pick her up and scratch her ears, then release her with his tacit seal of approval. Major Lamb was known to take her into his office to feed her when her roaming had upset officers, then release her once their shift was over.
You wouldn’t expect such a friendly mooch to make enemies. She didn’t know she wasn’t welcome in everyone’s bunk. One day, a prisoner threw her off of two row [the second level of cell blocks], I went to the dayroom to make sure she was okay. And I let it be known that I was willing to represent the cat. I would later have to prove my willingness to fight behind my little friend. No big deal. I’ve fought for lesser reasons, often. I began to teach her that my cell was her home and there would always be food available if she needed it. That kept this darling cat away from the other animals I am forced to share space with.
Crow was my cellie. He was my friend before I moved into his cell. He came to prison young and pretty in 1987 and, rather than be owned, had to stab a couple of men to make a reputation. He started with 40 Agg, now he’s got 129 years and 5 stacked sentences and tribal art that resembles tears down through the middle of each eye.
Crow swore I had a symbiotic relationship with this cat. I couldn’t deny it. It was weird how it had just happened. It was frustrating to never know when her mooching would have her stomach full and when she would arrive starving. It was expensive to make sure she was always fed. Crow named her Olivia and she always answered as long as you had food.
Some thought cats nasty and diseased. I came to her defense with information about cats being natural pest control and that they don’t carry diseases humans can catch. I also pointed out that no one ever had a cat chew holes in their soup and cookie packages the way mice did. Olivia had killed three mice in our cell and we no longer saw mice since she moved in. She had made her bed at my feet until I gave her a bath. From that day forward, she would curl up to be cuddled to my chest. I guess she wasn’t too upset about her bath, I didn’t force her to stay.
Crow is a night owl and informed me of Olivia’s actions while I slept. Whenever she would get down to go outside or to cool off on the concrete floor, she would meow in my face until I would awaken and then instantly fall fast asleep. Her need to make me aware of her presence on her return was a chance to show her affection and I was enjoying every minute of it. Once she had her cold nose stuck to mine as she meowed in my face. When I made room for her she curled up and stuck her nose in my hand as if to say, “I showed you it was cold. Hold it.”
It was a winter of firsts. I would have bet everything against nothing that never in my life would I wash a cat’s ass. That was before Olivia came home with her furry fanny covered in diarrheic shit from a spoiled meal she had probably mooched. No way could she ever clean that mess up alone and there was no one else to do it. With her cradled on her back in my left arm, I held her over the toilet to wash her off. Though she growled and grumbled at the indignity, she never tried to get away and was happy not to have to lick herself clean of that.
As Olivia’s belly swelled with kittens, she became ever more dependent. That was when she began to groom me for hours on end. Knowing where that tongue had been made no difference to me. There is no greater show of affection a cat shows than to groom her human. I was happy with her love. I would sprawl on the floor and let her have her way with me. Her rough tongue would work me over from nose to hair line. When I looked at what she had achieved before being satisfied, I came to realize she had missed her calling as a punk rock hair stylist. The front of my hair was painted into wild spikes and my eyebrows were slicked into some exotic catty conformity. It didn’t matter as long as it kept her occupied and off the halls.
We knew she was close [to giving birth] after looking up the gestation period for cats in the almanac, but weren’t sure when she got pregnant.
The night she gave birth, I had been moved to a new cell on 3-row and she had parked herself on top of my property as if intent to go with me. So I took her along. Olivia paced the new cell in abject misery until I got her to settle down on my bunk by rubbing her belly. I had felt the kittens butting their tiny heads against my hands for days and now they were even more active. The need to push when she didn’t want to stand and squat had her place her hind paws in my hand as she lay on her back and used my hand to push against. There was a squirt of white liquid ejected and the next thing I saw was a tiny paw protrude from her tiny opening. I knew a burst sack could mean big trouble for Olivia and her kittens if I didn’t act fast. So I switched her tiny back paws to my other hand so I could reach the kitten’s paw and try to help him out. “Push! Push baby,” I found myself urging Olivia and she seemed to listen and try harder. When the kitten came forth in a gush of bloody fluid, Olivia yowled and gripped my hand in her teeth as if trying to stifle her anguish. The trust it took for me to not pull away from her was paid its full reward when she drew no blood.
With the first baby born, her instincts kicked in and she began to clean him, so I took a moment to get a wet rag to clean her up as we went. Before I could return, the frantic meows of a kitten in fear had me scrambling back to her side. I found that though her instincts informed her of the need to eat the placenta, she hadn’t realized she should chew it free from the kitten before swallowing it. I got a grip on the kitten and caught hold of the cord to pull the placenta from her mouth and let her try again. That time she got it right Mama cats don’t eat their babies on purpose. The sight of Olivia’s expression as that kitten headed toward her mouth and she had no idea what to do was worth all the money I spent feeding her veracious appetite while she carried this litter of kittens.
I named him Shade for his coloring, which was like shadow on dark water, and for the way his life so nearly ended in tragedy before he ever took his first breath.
The second birth was easier and I finished cutting the cord with my finger nail. By the third she was an old hand and knew just what to do.
Many of the female staff came to see the kittens, but it’s considered a major case to get caught with kittens in the cell — and I had the whole damn litter!
Of the six kittens born that night, only three would survive long enough to have their eyes open. Loyalty, the only female, was a dark beauty.
Her death came while being kept safe for her owner by a prisoner called Smurf. He was smoking K-2 [synthetic marijuana] and went into a convulsive seizure. When he came out of it, he had smothered Loyalty. The third cat, Lil Gangstah, was accidentally dropped in a fan while another prisoner was smoking K-2. Without access to a veterinarian, he was injured beyond hope.
Only Shade has thrived. He was Crow’s and when Crow went to lock-up [solitary], he gave him to me to take care of. Not able to take him in at the time, I was able to talk a lady guard into carrying him home where he is now her mom’s pampered pet. It only cost him his testicles and that’s a price I’d be more than willing to pay for parole myself.
I had to keep the smell down from the nest I made for Olivia in my typewriter box by washing the sheet daily. My cell got shook down [searched for contraband] while I was at supper once and the Nigerian guard had pulled the box out from under the bunk. He must’ve ran off when he saw Olivia — and luckily he never realized she had kittens in the box with her!
It was a good thing I didn’t try to keep Shade since I was to go to the hospital over night, after smoking K-2 myself, and he would have been left all alone. I had to spend another 30 days in transit, awaiting a new cell, after that incident. Those 30 days probably saved me a new murder case since I otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to cool off from my new cellie Gypsy, who called on the cops on me in the first place. K-2 is called synthetic pot, but it is very potent. They had told me it was a killer. I didn’t believe them when I got the very big stick of it. It flamed up [when I lit it] like it had been dipped in kerosene and I didn’t want to waste it so I sucked it all down and knew it was way too much. They told the truth: it nearly killed me.
Olivia was not as trusting of me when I returned, although I was still willing to stand up for her if needed. It wasn’t her fault. I went away, she was mine and she had every right to be mad at me about it.
Olivia became pregnant again as soon as I took the kittens away from her and she was ready to have them soon after my return from my time in transit. I showed her where I lived and made her a place to have her babies if she so wished. Instead she gave birth to her second litter in my friend, Ray-Ray’s cell right before we were locked down for a major shake down. They were too young to place outside and so he was able to talk someone into adopting both Olivia and her babies with intentions to find the kittens homes once they were grown.
At least that’s the story I was told and chose to believe rather than to think Olivia is no more. Prison and K-2 seem to be hard on both the cats and the prisoners. Makes you wonder how bad prison is that men will purposely burn and ingest such dangerous chemicals to have a moment of time free from this place.
I’ll never be sure of Olivia’s fate, but for the price of a few meals she taught me much about taking life one day at a time and being willing to love even if it’s only for a minute. Though Olivia is gone, one way or another, the knowledge she left behind is still with me.
Daniel Herbert Harris is serving 35 years in Texas for Attempted Capital Murder.
We send your comments to our writers but if you’d prefer to write Daniel directly, please write to:
Daniel H. Harris #00622851
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886