Life Lesson Teachings by a Squirrel

by Keith A. Higgins
August 2012




To my delight and fascination the past few months I’ve watched men aged 30 to 50 interact with a squirrel. These are not ordinary grown men. They represent California’s hardened criminals who have spent much of their lives in the California prison system. And this is no ordinary squirrel, but one who visually recognizes different persons and responds to their voices. This is a squirrel unafraid to express personal preferences, set boundaries with strangers and negotiated the terms of his relationships with the men. This squirrel operates on a fairly fixed time schedule with a predictable routine. The relationships between the squirrel and the men are not the same as the past with this crowd who often captured mice, gophers, lizards and birds, put them in simple cages and called them pets. Nor is the interaction between them the same type of personal amusement whose purpose is merely to derail the tedium of everyday sameness that characterizes prison life.
The cynics among us would observe these manipulative criminal masterminds were themselves being manipulated by a mere squirrel. The behaviorists would observe not only have these men succeeded in socializing the squirrel, this squirrel has succeeded in socializing these men. The more philosophical observers would note this continuing interaction between the men and the squirrel and the squirrel with each man can be explained in concept as “nurturing.” These men, who without reservation would have beaten to death the party that tried to cheat them in a drug deal gone bad, done a drive-by shooting to get even with a rival gang over insults, robbed banks, burglarized homes and business or kidnapped persons to get what they wanted were now giving up the almonds, peanut butter cheese crackers and the better stuff from the packet of trail mix in their lunch to a squirrel. They were searching the flower bed for the most vibrant colored, delectable looking one-eyed susans for the squirrel’s dessert.

The squirrel allows particular men to pat his head, rub his back and tickle his belly while he sits on his hind legs. Sitting this way with others, the squirrel reaches forward with his hand-like front legs grasping the stem of the one-eyed susan just below the flower to pull it closer to his mouth and devour the nectar laden flower petals while the man patiently holds the lower part of the flower stem, and rolling it slowly between his fingers puts more of the petals in front of the squirrel to nibble on. The furry little creature has made clear to the men they can keep the bread, baloney, salami and oatmeal cookies in their lunches for themselves and there are particular times during the day he will be unavailable, so don’t call him just for the sake of calling him.

There being no shortage of cynics in California the past fifteen years, the thought has occurred to me that this squirrel who has succeeded in negotiating relationships and establishing community amongst these hardened criminals should probably be elected to public office. The squirrel has managed to accomplish what many of today’s politicians hold to be next to impossible—re-socialization of California’s convicted, dangerous, criminal population—without spending a boatload of money. Perhaps this is next to impossible in California because it is next to impossible to utter the words nurture or nurturing in the same sentence with the word inmate or prisoner without triggering a tirade about being “soft on crime” and “coddling criminals.” Despite decades of the same results and the California experience of being tough on crime by passing out stiff prison sentences for everything, very few politicians have commented on how well the “get tough on crime” and “no coddling of prisoners” has worked out. Instead, they added Rehabilitation to the name of the state’s department that runs the prisons and called it a day. My first inclination is to believe fewer people understood the meaning of rehabilitation than those who believed coddling criminals was a good idea.

Most people in California can explain the expected outcome and the general process for rehabilitating a building. The goal is to make the building more habitable, livable or useful by a process of repairing or replacing what is uselessly broken, salvaging as much as possible what has potential usefulness and giving the whole place a giant facelift. As one who has had a hand in the rehabilitation of buildings with historic significance, I must acknowledge the goal of preserving as much of the antiquity and character of the building as possible with a genuine commitment to the least detail with “tender loving care.” People in California would laugh at you if you said you were going to rehabilitate a building and then simply built a wire link fence around it and walked away for fifteen years. They would laugh even harder if you electrified the fence, but would cease laughing altogether if you told them they were paying for it.

Despite the fact that prison inmates are not buildings, politicians and many community leaders contend prison inmates are like a growing blight on the community, begin condemnation proceedings against them and erect electric fences around them, then begin systematically tearing them down. So why the surprised looks when the black, hispanic and low income white communities have all but crumbled? There is no mending of the social fabric of these communities shot full of holes and hanging together in pieces by frayed threads. But be clear: Neither the inhabitants nor the communities themselves have received sufficient nurture that apparently even a squirrel can provide. The families these prison inmates were reared in were incapable of nurture necessary to create adults society can live with for reasons going back a score of generations. The schools these inmates were required to attend were not nurturing institutions except for nurturing disillusionment, hatred and violence on a grand scale. On the whole, they are among the worst in the nation. The police and social service agency presence in the neighborhood doesn’t nurture individuals or communities unless you make the exception for nurturing contempt, distrust and hostility because they go about their work by separating and destroying families. Most commonly, inmates found much of the nurture they needed in the neighborhood gangs, as did their fathers, uncles, brothers, and as will their own children. This is the only nurturing they have or will experience. It certainly is possible the absence of responsible nurturing explains why in their present condition prison inmates are uninhabitable, not livable and have lost their usefulness in the community because they are broken and in need of repair.

Who in California wants to recognize the value of nurture or the fact we as humans nurture others only as well as we have been nurtured by others? Who wants to recognize, as the State of California becomes less and less nurturing of individuals and communities, discussions continue in back rooms over plans to construct more electric fences? Conceptualizing rehabilitation of prison inmates in terms of nurturing them is only difficult when you continue to deny the reality that prison inmates are individual persons not slum buildings. This doesn’t imply however all the principles for rehabilitation of a structure won’t work when you undertake the rehabilitation of persons by nurturing them. Like buildings with historical significance, prison inmates are individuals with a significant history of being appreciated by others, valued as persons, previous usefulness, and some (perhaps various) purpose(s) in their lives. They deserve the same commitment to preservation of priceless historical detail with “tender loving care” provided by those committed to returning them to inhabitable, livable persons. Each is a faulty structure with broken parts in need of repair or replacement. Each needs the final touch of a major facelift.

The simple fact is inmates came to prison poorly socialized and the prison environment re-socializes them to survive prison. The survival skills for prison life do not make for a “livable” person in the community and there is no community where “every man for himself” is the prevailing philosophy. If however, day after day you give up the best part of your lunch and then scour the flower beds in search of the most delectable one-eyed susan for a squirrel, you no longer entirely ascribe to that philosophy. And imagine that: It only takes a squirrel to make it happen!