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The writer with one of his Paws for Life dogs Hunter

In early March 2020, the world suddenly changed. People were whispering and rumors were flying about a new kind of virus — one worse than the flu. Unseen and invisible, silently bounding oceans and speeding across continents. It seemed like the plot of a Hollywood horror film more than reality. 

At California State Prison, Los Angeles, the first notice we received was that all visits were canceled. Then, “non-essential outside individuals” were denied entry, which meant that educational classes and religious services were canceled. Masks were issued to each man to wear when we left our rooms. The guards were instructed to wear one or use a plastic face shield. The nurses also came by twice a day to ask questions and take our temperatures, and everyone was given the deluxe nasal swab test back in May. 

Somehow, amid the chaos, many men have come up with creative and ingenious ways to relieve stress and boredom during the pandemic. The two outlets that have gotten me through these difficult and emotional times have been my joy of collecting postage stamps, and my love for dogs. Both fulfill my life, especially now. 

I have been a philatelist since I was 10. Recently I reorganized my collection of nearly 1,000 stamps. I send my duplicates to a school teacher in Ohio, who in turn distributes them to his students. There is a small group of stamp collectors in my building. We share stories of the past, and non-collectors save stamps from their mail for us. I have quite an assortment, including foreign stamps from the nearly forty different countries I’ve visited. 

Before coming to prison, I lost most of my personal possessions, but my family was able to save my stamp collection. They slowly send me parts of it, and I use mint-condition commemoratives in all different denominations on outgoing mail. I rarely use Forever stamps. I use four or five stamps, so they add up to the current 55-cent letter rate. Now that I have time, I try to match my stamps with the recipient’s interest. I probably have more fun than the person receiving them. 

I imagine philatelists on the outside are also dusting off their collections. This hobby has endured wars and famines, and it will outlast this deadly virus. Stamps teach us about geography, history, established customs and traditions as well as different currencies and relevant topics that include past, present and future innovations and inventions. It gives me a chance to escape and travel. The only rules imposed are those of my own imagination. This is why philately — the collection of stamps — is known as the hobby of kings!

My other passion is dogs. Being part of the Paws for Life Prison Program is a dream come true. More than thirty dogs who were rescued from high-kill shelters live in my building, and their barking is music to my ears. Their unconditional love gives me so much comfort and delight. The affection and closeness shared between us has had a calming and peaceful effect on us both. Walking and jogging together in the medium-high desert — 2,710 feet — is wonderful. Besides short potty breaks, we are allowed outside every other day for three hours. We both return to my room thirsty and exhausted. We relax on my bed until we catch our breath. 

I’ve had the pleasure of being a Paws for Life trainer for the past three years. I’ve helped over twenty dogs get adopted instead of facing euthanasia. Even though I got attached to many of them, a forever home with a loving family is our goal. 

One of the most memorable dogs was Caper, who had been hit by a car. When he first arrived, we had to carry him back and forth to use the restroom. 

The first month, we put him through daily physical therapy exercises. Caper seemed to know we were helping him and loved the attention. Massaging and stretching his injured hind leg brought us closer. After a few weeks, his stitches were removed. Caper disliked the cone around his head as his fragile leg healed. He was just six months old, which probably helped him recover in record time. He learned all the basic commands quickly, and he was adopted almost immediately. 

Our motto is: “We work hard, so our dogs can have a better life.” Caper did his part too! The day Caper left it was raining, so no one could tell I was crying. 

These activities have helped me cope with this COVID-19 crisis. The count rises daily with no end in sight. And the virus has come to this prison. Soon, it infected this yard. Now, men in my building have contacted it. 

Living in close quarters, germs, diseases, colds, and flu spread rapidly. All we can do is avoid those who have symptoms. Medical health coverage in prison doesn’t compare to the level of care offered by doctors and hospitals in the free world. 

As a 65-year-old, it is a little worrisome.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Lawrence May is a writer incarcerated in California. He has traveled to nearly 40 countries outside the U.S. and has written more than 50 stories, as well as his autobiography.