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As a prisoner I have little responsibility. My food, electricity, rent, is all provided. I’m told when to eat, when to sleep, when to shower. About the only things I am responsible for is trying to navigate the 136 poorly delineated and overly broad rule violations, and guarding myself against bodily harm. I do miss being responsible for the normal daily problems of the non-incarcerated and having others rely on me. 

I never thought responsibility would come in the form of a little praying mantis.

One morning, while walking in the Yard, a praying mantis landed on my shirt for a free ride. Who am I to deny the little guy some help? I walked him straight to my cell and found him a good perch to hang out on. I showed my friend Dano my new celly. He asked what I named it and as a joke I called him “Little Dano.” 

With any new celly you try to figure out their habits and pet peeves to work around. That’s true whether your celly is  human or an insect.

One morning, I opened my eyes to see Little Dano’s goofy face on my pillow staring at me. Now, while it’s hard to have a bad day when it starts out with such a goofy face staring at you, I realized there was a danger of squishing the little guy in my sleep. So each night I make sure he is on a perch not likely to end up on my bunk. 

This initiated a game of hide and seek between the two of us. Each night I make sure he is on a safe perch. Each morning I move carefully around the cell until I find his hiding spot. 

You may be wondering how I ensure Little Dano has his daily nutritional needs met. Well, I rarely, if ever, see any other bugs in my cell. So he’s developed a taste for prison cuisine. He eats the tuna fish, chicken, and baffling to me, even the turkey ham from my daily meals. 

I must admit I was leery of feeding him the turkey ham which I’m convinced is slowly killing me. But Little Dano really likes the gristly greasy thing and will gnaw on it for 30 minutes. Go figure.

When I go to the yard I do collect various bugs and worms to supplement his prison fare. My friend told his mother the highlight of his day was watching how excited I get collecting bugs for Little Dano. The other day, as I was returning to my unit, out of the corner of my eye I saw a fat bug, scooped it up into my pocket for Little Dano. Unfortunately, what I put in my pocket was a stink bug. It took three days to get the smell out of my pocket and cell. Little Dano didn’t mind, though. He just gobbled the poor thing down. 

I became concerned that Little Dano was not getting enough water so I put some on the end of my finger and stuck it in his face. Had I given it a little forethought, I would have realized bugs, like humans, don’t like a giant finger poking them in their face. Little Dano immediately latched on to the end of my finger with needle ridden forearms and began chomping away at my fingertip. Shoot. Now what? I gently tried to nudge his forearms off as he continued to eat more of my finger. It started to really hurt until I had to shake him off my finger. Gnaw gnaw gnaw. Ouch ouch ouch. Finally Little Dano lost his grip and went flying into the ether. 

Being a father at 17 and sole supporter of a wife and two kids thereafter, I miss being relied upon for other safety and security. Little Dano gives me a taste of that responsibility. 

One day, he decided to crawl off his perch and plopped into the toilet. I’m quite a germaphobe, but the panicked look on Little Dano’s face as he laid on his back in the middle of the toilet let me know he was in serious trouble. My giant hand scooped him from the bowl and he latched on with those needled forearms for dear life. He was further terrified and dug in when that same giant hand gave him a fountain bath. I felt bad but I could not have him crawling around the house in toilet water. 

About a week later, Little Dano took another dive into the toilet. This time he wasn’t panicked at all. Instead, he calmly crawled into my giant hand and enjoyed the following fountain bath. As this is not a game I’m willing to play, the toilet is now covered with a t-shirt and has become his trampoline. 

After a particularly good day collecting bugs, Little Dano ate half his body weight of spiders, bees and a moth. Shortly thereafter he fell off his perch, stumbled around and appeared sick. I was rather worried. Afraid I may have poisoned him. I placed him in a special perch where he would not be in jeopardy of falling and said a small prayer for his recovery. 

I woke to quite a surprise. Little Dano was not a he and now is an expectant mother, proudly standing over an egg sack. Needless to say Dano was not happy about the name and suggested I rename my new celly to Little Dannet. Too late. You can’t re-name a pet months later. Too confusing. 

Little Dano has since laid three more egg sacks and I discovered that each sack called an “ootheca” can produce between 30 and 300 young mantids. 

“You’re going to have some explaining to do when they all hatch,” my friend Dano told me.

“I know,” I replied. “How am I going to explain why they all look like me?” 

Just kidding. Just kidding. Although they probably will all have my hair style. Two scraggly hairs on top. 

In all seriousness. Having Little Dano as my celly brings purpose and joy to my life and joy to the others in my unit. Little Dano is the model of patience. She will stay in one spot without moving for days. When I get stressed, just looking at her brings me calm. Not only do I enjoy finding and feeding her and making sure she has safe perches. Others in the unit enjoy bringing her food and checking up on her condition. 

She is the perfect celly in an otherwise dreary place.

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.

Jeffrey McKee

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington.