Jail Bird

I was looking down at the yard from the third tier. The guys who had been playing a pick-up game of basketball were now tramping through the perennials.

“What the heck?” I said. After seven years in prison, I felt protective of the flower bed. It was an island of green in a sea of concrete. I hurried down the metal stairs. When I got closer, it was obvious they were looking at something under a clump of Shasta daisies. 

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“There’s a bird in there and it can’t fly.”

I crouched to look under the leaves. A tiny yellow warbler huddled against the stems. I reached for it. It flew under a clump of purple coneflowers. I reached again. It flew to the base of the cellblock’s twenty-foot wall and cowered there. This time I sccoped it up. It didn’t struggle in my hand. I took it back to my cell and looked it over. It was bright-eyed and alert. There were no obvious injuries. I stroked its head with one finger.

“Maybe it’s young,” I thought, “just learning to fly. Maybe it glided over the wall from the hill beyond and now can’t get out.” I knew the feeling.

The bird was a tiny jewel. It had rusty cheek patches. Its bright yellow belly was decorated with black stripes. Those stripes reminded me of an old-time prison uniform. But this was no ordinary jailbird.

There’s no lack of birds in prison. Flocks of pigeons populate the yard.  Monotonous in their grey and white garb, they settle in like lifers. They roost in the razor wire and soil the metal stairs with droppings. Unfazed by plastic owls set to guard the rooftops, the birds strut and squabble and copulate in public without shame.

Hawks come to prison to hunt the pigeons. Sometimes a couple of black-uniformed crows chase away a predator, tailing the larger bird, worrying it with raucous cries. But when the crows aren’t on patrol, the hawks cut a victim out of the panicked flock. I once watched a red-tail take down a pigeon in mid-flight with an explosion of feathers.

No, it wasn’t birds we lacked in here, it was trees.  Not one tree was permitted to grow inside the perimeter fence. Along with the trees were banished all the forest birds.  I missed them: chickadees, junkos, grosbeaks, siskins, nuthaches, vireos, finches, woodpeckers, scarlet tanangers, cedar waxwings. I even missed the bullying bluejays. It was several years before this part of my punishment began to sink in, to start an ache deep inside.

But here was a warbler, a beautiful wild thing. I held it in my hand. I prepared a cardboard box and lined it with a state-issue towel. Then I went looking for John and his Petersons Field Guide to Birds. Together we poured over the pictures of warblers, comparing wing bars and rump colors. We decided our bird was a male Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina.

What should I do? I toyed with the idea of making him a pet, a companion in captivity. No, I couldn’t do that. What would I feed him? Besides, it wouldn’t feel right to keep such a beautiful thing caged. 

 I carried my charge to the Unit Manager’s office on the ground floor.

“What have you got there, Horner?” she asked.

I opened my hand enough for her to see. “It’s a young warbler. It was hiding in the flower bed.”

“Can’t it fly?”

“It can, but not well enough to get over the wall.  I thought maybe someone could take it out of here.”

She shook her head. “I think you should put it back where you found it.” 

“But, it will die.”

She shrugged. “I’m a great believer in letting nature take its course.”

On the way back to my cell, I wondered what was natural about abandoning anything to die in this wasteland of concrete and razor wire.

The warbler hopped around in its box. Every now and then it would let out a vigorous cheep. I had to get this jailbird out of the slammer. But I would need help. Most successful escapes involve an accomplice on the outside. I ran through a mental list of sympathetic staff. I settled on Kathy as the most likely candidate. She was a civilian employee in the Bureau of Programs. And she was an animal lover, always talking about her dogs.

The office was on the third floor of the Industries Building in the North Yard. The yard was separated from the general population. It had too many tools and machines. I’d have to pass through a security checkpoint to get in. The guards would certainly balk at my bringing in a bird. Contraband, they would call it.

I rummaged through my footlocker for an empty toilet paper roll.  I saved them to make mailing tubes for my drawings. I closed one end of the tube with paper and scotch tape. I slid the warbler in and closed the other end.  I poked some hole in the paper for air, then slipped the tube into the pocket of my prison issue jeans jacket. 

As I joined the line at the North Yard gate, I couldn’t help fidgeting. I kept my hands in my pockets. I prayed the bird would keep quiet.

After a cursory pat down, I was in. I mounted the stairs to the office, hoping Kathy was there.

“Kathy,” I said, “I‘ve got something to show you.”

I untaped the tube and slid the warbler into my hand. He blinked and looked around inquisitively. Kathy’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, it’s so cute! Where did you get it?”

I told her, then lowered my voice to ask if she would take him out. We both knew this was a violation of prison rules. New Hampshire D.O.C. Policy and Procedure Directive number 2.16 - “No employee shall accept anything from persons under departmental control or extend to them any favors without permission of the Commissioner.”

“Of course I will,” she said conspiratorially, and winked.

We laughed.

At the end of the day, Kathy slipped the tube and its cargo into her coat pocket and walked out.

I heard the escapee disappeared into the woods later that day.