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A bird flies over a razor wire fence
Photo by Lisa Valder on iStock

In my 14 years of being held in North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, I have never witnessed a cycle of baby rabbits grow to maturity. 

If the culprit is not an environmental predator, such as a raven, crow or stray tomcat, then it’s the next most deadly predator of them all: a man and his John Deere. 

During mating and breeding season, the rabbits make small dens on the grass over the compound. When it’s grass-cutting time, the lawnmower operators don’t take care to scour the area for the small dens before proceeding.

Because of this, I have watched baby rabbits get decapitated. I can remember times when inmates banged loudly on the window grates, attempting to call the driver’s attention. But between the loud grumble of the John Deere engine and the earplugs in the driver’s ears, the banging was always futile. 

In areas such as Hagerstown and Cumberland, which both rest in northern Maryland near the Pennsylvania border, rabbits, groundhogs, skunks and other animals — original inhabitants of the land — are in constant peril.

At the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, I witnessed prison staff spray pesticides on the nests and food of pigeons. This resulted in birds twitching and falling out of the air all over the prison compound.

At the Jessup Correctional Institution, I saw corrections officers combat the territorial flocks of geese by throwing rocks at them — and even spraying them with cans of pepper spray. 

On one occasion, at North Branch, there was a rare breed of baby frog hugging the wall outside of a building. I remember many inmates stopped to watch and admire it. The problem was that this halted the progress of the chow line. So an officer came over to see what the commotion was about. Once he saw the baby frog, he knocked it off the wall and crushed it with his military-style police boot.

Since I was a small child, I have loved animals and nature. At 14, I was taken from my mother and sent to prison. So it’s very disturbing — and resonant of my own life — to see baby animals slaughtered before having a chance to truly live. 

During my incarceration, I have grown in touch with my spirituality. My efforts to find a higher cosmic calling have helped me transform the destructive mentality that landed me in prison. It was in this context that I developed a deeper love for observing nature out of the grates of my cell window. 

I enjoy watching life in motion. But it is devastating to see innocent baby creatures annihilated by the same humans who hold me behind bars, as if I too am an animal.

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.

Gary Cooper is a writer incarcerated in Maryland.