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Keeping an insect like a praying mantis in prison can provide companionship.
Jeffrey McKee with Mannie (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey McKee)

Mannie came to stay with me about three weeks ago. 

My cell is a single-man cell, meaning it contains one bunk for sleeping, a toilet and sink combo, a small table for writing and one long shelf to store property. The cell is about 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

I don’t mind sharing the space because Mannie is not very large. Mannie usually sleeps on the shelf above my bunk where I store some books and coffee. Mannie is very quiet, which I appreciate, especially when I’m sleeping.

Mannie is clean, too, except when he eats or goes to the bathroom. Mannie tends to leave pieces of his meal behind and constantly misses the toilet when doing his business. But, because Mannie is entertaining, I don’t mind cleaning up after him.

I forgot to mention one important detail: Mannie is a 3-inch-long, light green, long-legged praying mantis that I found in the prison yard. I know he is male by the number of ridges on their abdomen — males have eight and females have six. I invited him to move in with me.

Mannie is actually the second mantis that has celled up with me. In 2019, Little Danno hopped on my shirt and rode me back to my cell. Little Danno provided five months of entertainment and joy before it died of old age.

Like with Little Danno, I wanted to collect various bugs from the prison yard to feed Mannie. But at that point the yard had been closed for three days.

There are fly strips hanging in our dayroom that help catch insects. One of the strips is right in front of my cell. I was worried that Mannie was getting malnourished, so I opened my cell door and walked right up to the strip and yanked off a helpless bug, hoping to feed it to my friend. I suddenly noticed the dayroom, usually quite noisy, had gone silent.

There were 11 prisoners staring at me with puzzled looks. Not wanting to offer up a long-winded explanation, I simply looked at them and said, “If you’re hungry, there’s plenty more,” and walked back to my cell.

I was glad when yard time returned so I could find Mannie a real meal. At that point, people in my unit had started to talk about “the crazy guy picking flies off the fly strip.”

I brought a zip-lock plastic bag to the yard and caught three bees. I was stung, then I caught three more.

Every prisoner is frisked going to and returning from the yard. I was a little nervous coming back from the yard because I had a bag with six bees stuffed down my pants. One hard pat, and I would have had a hard time explaining why I’m suddenly doing a dance. But I made it back with no problems.

I was so excited to feed Mannie that when I opened the bag, two angry bees escaped. I spent the next five minutes running circles in my tiny cell until I caught them. I used a pair of tweezers to hold the bees in front of Mannie. He quickly trapped the bees, and ate them in roughly nine minutes.

The next day was an exceptional food hunt. I caught five bees and one large beetle. As I was waiting to return to the unit, another prisoner, who knew about Mannie, pointed to a mantis that looked identical to Mannie but slightly smaller. I scooped that mantis up and stuffed it in my shirt.

When I returned to my cell, I placed the new mantis on one of the flower pots in my window, far away from Mannie. I fed Mannie the five bees before I headed to the law library. I came back and saw Mannie had moved from the shelf over to the windowsill, away from the other mantis.

I fed Mannie the beetle and periodically checked up on him until I saw that he had grabbed hold of the new mantis and was gobbling it down.

It took Mannie four hours to finish his meal, but he ate it all. That was 11 bees, one beetle, and one mantis — almost the same size as him — eaten in two days. Mannie got so fat he could not hold himself up on the windowsill and fell off.

I later found out that you should only feed your mantis every two to three days.

I have loved watching Mannie groom itself like a cat. And I’ve loved watching it stealthily moving around the cell, keeping all other bugs out. I’ve even trained Mannie to crawl into my hand when I place it in front of him. 

Most of all, I enjoy having someone to care for.

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 is a writer incarcerated in Washington.