Old Canteen Tom - McAlister Prison Cat
By: Jerry W Hamilton - Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester, USA, 2007.
Canteen Tom had a head on him about the size of a cantaloupe melon and weighed around 40-50 pounds. He was reddish brown with stripes. In those early days, they'd let the prisoners from each cell house out to the yards to exercise at the same time. The place was wide open with gambling tables, music, and a covered area where we could congregate to talk or play chess and dominoes. Back then we had the best of canteens that sold sandwiches, hamburgers, French fries and chicken. There were soft drinks, coffee and ice cream, just like you get out there in the free world, alas a distant memory for us at McAlester today.
Many prison cats would hang around at canteen time and prisoners would feed them, but Canteen Tom was the King. No other cat could beat him in a fight and because he wouldn't let anyone mess with him he gained a big respect from all of us. When Canteen Tom wanted a sandwich or an ice cream, he'd just mosey up and stand there in line till one of us would buy him something, but if he'd wanted a cheese sandwich and got a hamburger, he'd ignore it. The call would go out, "Hell, Old Tom ain't eating hamburger today!" Then someone would order him something else instead.
I know you've probably seen some old 1970s movies set in a prison and no doubt seen how guards controlled all the opening and closing of cell house doors from the control center or button cage. Needless to say some guards would make a prisoner stand there a long time until they felt like opening the door and of course one or two would catch an attitude and cuss the guard out, well Canteen Tom was no different! I saw him many times arrive at a cell house and after he thought he'd waited long enough he'd turn and look at the damn guard in the control picked as though he was saying to himself, "What the hell's your trip?" –smile. He was a smart cat. He'd learnt never to walk through the bars because once he'd almost got killed doing so. Hell, in the old cell houses each tier had around 50 cell doors that would open and shut together as one, I've even known prisoners get their limbs caught in those automatic doors.
At one time guards turned a blind eye to convicts keeping pets. Men made pets of birds, rabbits, skunks and even spiders. A lot of us caught and tamed wild kittens and the first thing we taught them was to stay in the cell. But you know how playful kittens are and unfortunately some ended up maimed or even killed by the doors. I've had several kittens throughout the years the last one was back in 1984. I was living on C-side and gave it to an old guard I knew to take out to the free world. He said his mother wanted a black cat and this one was black except for white paws and a white spot on its nose and neck. Just because you're in prison doesn't mean you cease to be a human being. Many of us have grown up around pets; they are the best companions a person can have.
Old Canteen Tom's story was printed in several newspapers in Oklahoma. He finally got out of prison when he became too old and feeble and lived out the rest of his days under the care of one of the prison staff. He sure was a character though and walked around here like he owned the place. Nobody messed with him and that's a fact. He was the meanest, most spoilt cat around, but he was loved and respected by everyone.
Jerry W Hamilton
"Set Me Free" - By: Sharon Mitchell Beaumont
When Sharon from Britain writes to long-term prisoner Jerry Hamilton, banished from his home state of Oklahoma to the Texas Department of Corrections in 1988, they embark on a remarkable journey together. It's our belief that "Set Me Free" will challenge every preconception you may have held about the prison systems in the United States of America."
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