When you think of prison ― if you ever think of prison ― do you think of TV shows like “Oz” or “Lockup Raw,” where men are always covered in skull tattoos and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the prime of his body building days?
Does your mind’s eye conjure piles of weights all over prison yards and people walking around with their chests puffed out in clothing that reads “Department of Corrections” looking as mean and tough as possible ― toxic masculinity at its finest?
Have you ever stopped to think that the version of prison you’ve been shown on TV is just one side of life in here?
In the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), where I lived since 2009 before moving to Washington Corrections Center (WCC) in July, there were some fully tattooed guys, and yes, weight piles could be found in the yard, and there were even a couple of guys that might be bigger than Schwarzenegger in his prime. But mostly, prison is just full of a bunch of normal people who made a mistake or a bad choice that led them to being confined from the rest of society. We’re not a subhuman group for the rest of the world to fear. For the most part, we’re just normal people who lost our way.
This summer, I was on a run when I was reminded of the humanity that resides in prison. As I followed the thin gravel track that lines the tall brick prison wall speckled with gun towers, there were bunnies at every turn. They varied in size and color ― some spotted, others fully white, black or light brown. Yes, rabbits had moved into our prison, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Everyone I talked to about the rabbits mentioned a prisoner named Tommy, who I came to dub “the official bunny ambassador of WSR.”
“It started early last spring in 2020,” Tommy told me. “I noticed Grandma Sandy and her babies on the basketball court.”
I looked at him with an odd expression and said, “Grandma Sandy? The bunnies have names?”
“Of course they do, we named a bunch of them,” he said. “There’s Sara, she had babies in the garden at the education building. I didn’t even know she was a female tll then. Oh, and there’s Chewy, and even a Chewy Junior, who we call CJ. CJ has a scar on his face from a fight. He trusts me though. I can get him to sit on my lap while I hand-feed him. Often CJ is waiting for me to come to the yard and meet him. It’s really cool.”
I asked how the bunnies got their names.
“Scott [another prisoner] and I were standing in the back of the yard,” Tommy told me. “It was nice and sunny. We were watching one of the bunnies just lying there sunbathing like a cat. It was so funny. I started calling out all kinds of names, seeing if the rabbit would respond: Chuck, Bob, Ralph, etc. Nothing! The rabbit just laid there, didn’t even lift an ear. I looked over at Scott and said, ‘Maybe it’s not a boy but possibly a girl?’ We looked at each other and simultaneously said, ‘Sara!’ We knew that had to be the name, and from then on, that’s what we called her. And she seems to like it! But it could also be the food we’ve given her. Who knows at this point?”
After Tommy and Scott named Sara, they decided to name some of the other friendlier rabbits ― not all the rabbits will interact with them, just a select few.
“Grandma Sandy was the last one to be named,” Tommy told me. “Scott and I decided it had to start with an S, given she looked the oldest and we think she’s Sara’s mom, but we’re not 100% sure on that. So we wanted both of their names to start with an S, and settled on Sandy.”
When you think about prison, do you think about tenderness, caring and connections? They’re not common, but they’re here.
“Being in prison for murder, I have my own feelings to process around shame and self-worth, but when a bunny comes running up to me, it touches a deep part in my soul. It lets me know I’m worth something, you know?”
As Tommy and I continued to talk, I knew I had crossed paths with the bunny whisperer. His eyes lit up whenever he discussed the little creatures. There’s no denying the joy they bring him and many others in here.
“For me personally,” Tommy told me, “being in prison for murder, I have my own feelings to process around shame and self-worth, but when a bunny comes running up to me, it touches a deep part in my soul. It lets me know I’m worth something, you know?”
He added, “I’ve thought of this a lot, like, why do I love these little creatures so much? And I realized that my whole life I’ve heard animals are a good judge of one’s character, and these little guys love me, so it makes me happy to think if that’s true, then maybe I’m worth a lot more than I give myself credit for. I mean, they see something in me.”
It’s not surprising he feels this way. Scientists have studied the connections between humans and animals and found these relationships can significantly reduce stress, depression and anxiety.
Still, no matter how much joy they bring to the population of the prison, not all are in support of the bunnies. One guard told me, “They spread countless diseases, not to mention, they’re overpopulating the place. Something needs to be done with them.”
Anyone behind these walls will tell you there’s no shortage of emotional struggles in prison, especially since COVID-19 has ravaged prisons across the country, hitting us harder than possibly any other community, and the bunnies have been one of the bright spots.
“I have this saying, these bunnies are soul food, NOT belly food. And it’s totally the truth,” Tommy told me. He then went on to share an example of how he knows this to be true.
“During a quarantine at the prison ― we had a huge COVID outbreak and were placed in the gym on cots, over a hundred of us. I had a little outdoor area where I was able to spend time with the bunnies. I knew I was gonna be there for 14 days, bare minimum, so I made the best of it and took the time to train some of the little dudes. I had one who would come right up and sit on my lap while I fed him. He was still not all that sure about getting pet, more like, ‘I said you could feed me, not touch me.’ As I continued to work with the little guy, I thought, why not bring one of my buddies out and see if he can feed him. A buddy of mine had a bad headache, we all had COVID, so I took him out to the bunnies. When out in the fresh air, we worked to get the little guy over by feeding him, and before you know it, the bunny had its wet little paws on my buddy’s pants and was eating away at the food he shared. When we returned to the gym, my friend looked down and a large grin crossed his face. He looked up and said, ‘He climbed on me!’”
Tommy continued, “In that moment, his COVID symptoms were gone. If only for a moment, he was free from COVID and possibly even prison.” He looked at me, with more pride and joy in his eyes than I can describe, and then said, “You see, soul food.”
No one knows where the bunnies came from, and though some people might say humans shouldn’t interact with wild creatures, the prisoners at WSR certainly benefited from their presence at a difficult time when the system was providing us with little comfort. Even many of the guards were taken by the bunnies. No one can deny their adorableness and the warm fuzzy feeling they bring to this cold prison environment. Food for the soul indeed.
Christopher Blackwell, 40, is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost, Insider and many more outlets. You can follow him and be in touch on Twitter at @chriswblackwell.