The below is an excerpt from Don’t Shake the Spoon: A Journal of Prison Writing, a literary journal published by Exchange for Change.
Homestead is the hap….hap….happiest prison on Earth. There is no crying nor mourning allowed. When a fellow inmate dies in harness, the Dear Leaders do not grant permission for even the most basic memorial service to be held in the chapel.
At one time a number of cats lived in the prison. The matriarch of them all, Smokey, was a venerable, gray, old lady. She was a Persian mix and spent every day lazing in the sun-dappled butterfly garden behind the property room. Smokey also favored lounging under the net on the tennis court whether a game was scheduled or not. We learned to play around her.
Our feline queen held audience daily, allowing select inmates to comb her plush fur. She dined on Meow Mix and Fancy Feast served by Sgt. Starr. We knew her majesty was delicate. She had ruled the prison yard since 1999, the year Homestead was opened to women.
One spring morning, Sgt. Starr found Smokey cold and stiff in front of her office. Smokey lay in state all day inside a New Balance shoe box. The viewing and visitation lasted through the afternoon as inmates came with hand-picked bouquets. The women wept and told fond stories of this great cat.
The next day, Homestead’s warden authorized an outdoor burial service to be held on the tennis court. Everyone attended, including the classification officers and mental health counselors. Our chaplain gave a moving sermon from verses out of Revelation where beasts praised under God’s throne. The choir sang “All Creatures Great and Small.” Dutchie soloed “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” A tiny grave had been prepared and lined with fresh picked catnip and Miami Lady hibiscus blooms.
As the box was lowered, women started weeping, almost ululating. One overwrought inmate threw herself over the hole screaming, “You should have taken me, God, not Smokey!”
Looking around at the mourners, I sniggered to my friends, “Ridiculous!”
Lately, at night, alone in my cell, I’ve been thinking of all the women I’ve known who died in prison. Julie Terwilliger, painter of sublime murals, breast cancer; Rosemary Rockholt, able to coax any plant to flourish, lung cancer; Christine Cordner James, teacher of maths, metastatic brain cancer; Denise Newsome, creator of detailed topiary; Denice Brinson, determined GED student, stomach cancer; Josefa Davilla and Tyra Williams, faithful church ladies, Covid.
The funeral wasn’t for Smokey. It was for all of us, our friends, and sisters, who will die here. They will be reduced to a Florida Department of Corrections number on a car license tag in a potter’s field prison cemetery.
Unnamed, unremarked, unremembered.
Partnering with the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, Exchange for Change has brought their signature prison visitation program to South Florida, an opportunity for group discussions between those on the outside and those on the inside to sit down and chat with incarcerated students at Everglades and Homestead correctional institutions. The conversations take place every Monday and Wednesday, 1-4p at both Homestead Correctional Institution and Everglades Correctional Institution. To learn more about their programs visit exchange-for-change.org.