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Life Inside

My Best Friends in Prison are Frogs, Turtles, and Raccoons

Sharing space with open-minded visitors from beyond the walls.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I used to have a pet turtle in prison.

I began my bid at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, where I lived from 2000 to 2002. The entire yard abuts a rocky bluff, and deer would occasionally emerge from the surrounding woods to peer down at us. In the summer, I could always find myself a pet; garter snakes, frogs, and turtles would often break onto the grounds. At night, I could look out my window and see more than a dozen raccoons hanging out on the roof of the storage building, planning their assault on the chow hall dumpsters.

Once, I smuggled a baby turtle the size of a quarter to my cell. Its shell was so dark, it was nearly black. I built a small aquarium out of Styrofoam trays and cellophane, and when guards would walk by, I would push the aquarium out of sight under the bunk. During shakedowns, I’d cuff my turtle in my hand. The confused guards would destroy the empty aquarium, and I’d have to build another.

Everyone who saw my little turtle coveted it. Neighbors would often ask me to let them play with it for a day, and everyone would bring back anything they thought it might like to eat.

Before I could see it grow, however, I was transferred to another prison.

I spent the next decade of my life at the super-max facility in Tamms prison, which was renamed Tamms Correctional Center and has since closed. The super-max “yards” were also a misnomer — every yard was an isolation chamber, as no more than a single person could be out on each one at a time. They were about the size of a one-car garage, made of concrete, with a corrugated steel and chain-link roof overhead.

The only fixtures were a flood light, a video camera, and a red steel door with an emergency call button. If pressed, the button was usually ignored; when answered, it was usually to inform the inmate that he would be written a disciplinary ticket if he pressed it again.

Fortunately, Tamms was surrounded by woods and wildlife. From our cell windows, we would often see hawks, turkey buzzards, deer, skunks, and raccoons.

When it rained, tree frogs would scale the wet cement walls, as if to gain access to us. But as soon as the sun dried the walls, they couldn’t climb back over, and they were imprisoned just like we were.

After holding one of these frogs for a few minutes, they’d get used to me and not be afraid. Once that happened, I would sit them on my shoulder while I speed-walked in tight circles around my mini-yard.

After a decade of solitary confinement, though, I couldn’t bear to put another living thing in a cage with me. So before leaving rec, I would let each frog escape.

In 2012, I was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, where I was housed on the former death row as part of a “step-down” program to make my way out of isolation. For the initial three-month phase of the program, we had to go to rec in 8-foot-by-15-foot cages.

I was immediately advised by both staff and inmates not to touch any part of the cages. When I asked why, I was told that there were a lot of “shit-slingers” who used the cages prior to us — mentally-ill inmates who threw their shit around like a weapon. And sure enough, there were animals and birds everywhere in that prison, but they steered clear of those cages.

Finally, I arrived at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., where I’ve been since 2012. Stateville has no ducks, no rabbits, no squirrels. There are no frogs or turtles. It does have at least one fox, though, and groundhogs.

We feed the groundhogs daily, which makes them incredibly fat. They know the pulse of the prison — they’ll often ignore us as we walk to chow, but when we’re leaving chow, they will line up along the walks waiting for handouts.

It’s nice to be around other living things that are not instinctively terrified of us. They’ve been confined with us without being harmed. They are capable of forming their own judgments. They can decide for themselves which of us are a danger to them, and which are not.

Joseph Dole, 40, is incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., where he is serving life without parole for murder and aggravated kidnapping, which he was convicted of in 2000. Dole maintains his innocence.