Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Toad in the Prison Band Room

The turnout was slow on Saturday, so I stood waiting for the inmates at the door to the "band room," a reference to the days when inmates were allowed to play music.

That was a while ago, in the days when they could also work in gardens that provided fresh produce, and when they could take classes to earn an Associate's degree.

No more music. No more gardens. Very few opportunities.

The band room's south wall is glass.

Yes, I know -- this is Arizona, and south facing glass means solar oven.

I, and the guys in the prison writing workshop, deal with it. I don't need to state the obvious, that we sweat, even though we hide in what little shade remains when the sun is at its most intense.

I have to wonder if the administration doesn't gain some kind of sadistic pleasure in assigning this as the location for workshops, afternoon workshops -- hot sun, maximum gain, solar heated workshops.

So, there I was, last Saturday, with my plastic tub filled with writing pads, pens, books, and drafts of inmate work, when I noticed some movement in the band room.

I thought I imagined it at first, that the movement was a misfire of optical sleight of shadow and light.

But I looked more closely, and sure enough, something was there, behind the leg of a desk, looking for shade against the far wall.

It was a Sonoran toad, a big guy, the kind that produces hallucinogens in its secretions.

Yow! What was a Sonoran toad doing in a locked band room in the Santa Rita Unit of a state prison yard?

My reverie was interrupted by one of the officers who carried keys to the room.

"We want you in here," he said.

No surprise there.

"Remember to shut it down by 3:45," he said.

"Thanks," I said, to both the favor of opening the door to the oven and to the reminder to end the workshop before count. 

Once in the room, I extracted a folder from the tub and slipped it under the cooperative toad. I lifted him like a bearer would lift an emperor on his litter and carried him to the scrubby "garden" in front of the band room.

He hopped off to the cover of some leafy ornamentals before I turned to see some of the inmates watching me from the door to the band room.

"You're a crazy soft touch," one of them said.

"Yeah, even the guards out here seem to take care of the frogs," said another.

I didn't correct him about the toad not being a frog.

"Wonder he got in here," was all I said.

As the men gathered to discuss their work, the toad and the story moved into the background of our discussions.

One of the men wrote about how much of himself he loses in prison, how against the odds maintaining a sense of generosity and trust can be. He spoke of his prison time in terms of chisels, hammers, and knives that cut away at his fragile humanity.

As he talked I remembered the improbable image of a toad hiding from the sun in a locked room and wondered how anything fragile survives out of its place, away from all hope. 

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