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Kindness Behind Bars

A former prison chef offers a gripping tale about the true complexities of human nature

Captive Hearts: Inside a state prison, a lesson in compassion


The year is 1973, and 24-year-old William Bonham desperately needs work. Hoping to take advantage of his background in restaurants, he applies for a job as a cook at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and gets the offer. Out of cash and options, he takes it, much to his wife's concern. Over the course of a year, he comes to care for the prisoners, although he knows these men have committed unforgivable crimes. And on one terrible day, he is taught a surprising lesson about love and loss.

You wait a long time for spring in Montana — for the snow to be gone, for the air to be warm and fresh and filled with the smell of evergreens; you wait for the wildflowers to bloom, and to see white-tailed deer in the distance, walking across the foothills, stopping to eat new grass with their young. Then you wait for a breeze to come along and make the hour whole and clean and perfect. Here in this landscape, White Grass spent so much of his life, looking through a cyclone fence at hills he would never walk. It was that kind of day.

It didn't matter anymore why White Grass had been sent to prison. He might have been anything from a thief to a murderer. I'm not sure he could have told me what his crime was; his mind was almost gone. The man he'd been when he entered the prison years before had long since disappeared. He lived in twilight now, beyond any kind of punishment for whatever it was he'd done.

White Grass had the look of an old warrior. He had a broad, flat nose and high cheekbones. His skin was brown; his face, deeply lined. He often combed his long, gray-and-black hair into a ponytail. He had no teeth. When he sat with his arms crossed, you might have thought he was a wise tribal elder. Only his eyes gave away the damaged man behind them: Some days, they were vacant; other days, they held the innocence of a child.

He emptied and cleaned the garbage cans at Rothe Hall, where I worked as a cook. Some days he'd lose track of time and forget to show up for work, and I would have to look for him. Usually he could be found behind the kitchen, between the building and the cyclone fence that ran all the way around Rothe Hall. He walked back and forth, talking to himself, or stood silently, staring at the hills.

When I called to him, he came, walking with a strange, rolling gait possibly caused by arthritis in his hips. I'd tell him to return to work, and he would nod.

"Sure, sure … the cans."

Most of the convicts and guards were — for convicts and guards — gentle with him. Many watched over him. One day in winter, with the temperature in the low teens, Pop Mercer — a convict on the kitchen crew — approached me.

"White Grass is out back, and he ain't wearing a coat," he said. "I told him to get his ass back in here, but the goddamned Indian just stands there."

I walked to the back door and looked out. There he was, coatless in the icy yard. "Hey, White Grass!" I called. "Get back in here, and get your coat on!"

He didn't seem to hear, so I went out to him, shivering.

"C'mon, White Grass," I urged. "Get back inside. It's cold out here. You're going to freeze to death."

Finally, he turned back toward the building, his head nodding up and down. "Sure, sure," he said. "It's cold."

I've thought about White Grass often over the years. He usually comes to mind when I'm driving down a road in the country and the smell of a skunk rises up and fills the air.

One day in late April or May, a few hours after the morning meal, I went into the walk-in refrigerator. White Grass was there, bent over, pulling leaves from a head of lettuce.

When I entered, he looked up at me with an expression I'd never seen on him: It was happiness, real happiness, vibrant and alive. A lost part of him had bobbed to the surface.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

He showed me the lettuce. "It's for the babies," he said.

"What babies?"

"The babies," he repeated. "C'mon! Look!"

He brushed past me, hurrying down the hall to the outside door.

Reed and Mackey, both prisoners, were working over by the grills. I asked them what babies White Grass was talking about.

"We had some skunks born out back a couple of days ago," Reed explained. A pregnant skunk had crawled beneath Rothe Hall and given birth.

Mackey laughed. "White Grass thinks he's the daddy," he said. "He wants everybody to go out and look at the goddamned things."

I had started down the hall to take a look when Reed called out to me.

"Don't get too close," he advised. "She's wild. She's not spraying White Grass, but she might get scared."

I went to the door and peeked out. White Grass crouched 20 feet to my right, dropping bits of lettuce into a small recessed area along the wall. He was talking to the mother.

"There you go…. Mama's hungry.… Sure she is."

I walked out the door a few feet, wanting to get a glimpse of the skunks, but then I chickened out.

White Grass stayed outside most of that morning, sometimes coming into the kitchen for more lettuce or cabbage — far more than the mother could have eaten. He acted like the proud father, busy and excited.

That afternoon, before I got off my shift, I made my rounds of the kitchen, which included checking the area out by the garbage cans. White Grass knelt there still, down on one knee, cooing to the mother. His delight was a lovely thing to see.

When I left work, I stopped at the desk and spoke to Lieutenant Burns. I asked if he knew about the skunks.

"Yeah, I know," he said. "We've got to get rid of the damned things."

I can't fathom now how I missed the import of that sentence. When people in the country talk about "getting rid of the damned things," they mean killing them. That night, someone at the prison poisoned the mother skunk and her babies.

The next morning, White Grass found the bodies.

Just before 11 a.m., I pulled up in front of the cyclone fence at Rothe Hall. As soon as I opened the car door, I heard a wailing in the distance.

"Aa-ii-ee-ee!"

The sound echoed, as if rolling down from the hills.

I walked up to the gate, and the tower guard buzzed me through. As I closed it behind me, the sound rose again.

"Who's making that noise?" I called to the guard.

"White Grass," he shouted. "He's been doing that all morning."

I didn't need to ask why — it hit me hard.

If only I'd been smarter the day before. If I'd been thinking, I would have told Burns that the death of the skunks would kill White Grass. Burns was a hard man, but he wasn't cruel. We could have lied to White Grass. It would have been easy — White Grass was so childlike. We could have removed the bodies and told him the mother skunk had taken her babies deep into the woods; he would have believed it.

Poor White Grass.

I ran into Rothe Hall and hurried through the dining hall into the kitchen. Mackey was cooking, but Reed and Pop stood at the end of the hallway, staring. I stepped outside. My colleague Charlie and the morning desk sergeant stood watching White Grass, about 20 feet away. He remained still, his back arched and his face tilted up toward the sun. His long hair fell loosely behind him, and his arms opened toward the sky. Tears ran down his cheeks as he shook his head back and forth. He brought his hands to his face and dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, crushing the tears. He drew in a long breath and let it out. Then another breath, even longer — but this time, as the air rushed out of his lungs, it carried a long, deep moan. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and a prickly sensation ran down my back. White Grass dropped his arms to his sides, and his head fell to his chest. He stood there, limp and motionless.

Captive Hearts: Inside a state prison, a lesson in compassion


Slowly, he raised his arms until they stretched straight out from his body, like wings. He started to move. It looked like he was trying to hop. But he couldn't. Every time a foot hit the ground, his face jerked in pain. He grew still again, his arms up, his back arched and his face to the sky.

It was awful. And it was hypnotic.

"AA-II-EE-EE!"

Charlie spoke to me then, a slight tremor in his voice. "You go back in there and watch the kitchen," he instructed. "We're staying out here in case that old Indian decides to kill himself or some damned thing."

White Grass needed help, and I knew it had to come from someone smarter than me or Charlie or the desk sergeant. I asked Charlie if he'd called anyone.

"Hegsted's coming," he said. "Now go on — you get back in the kitchen."

Hegsted was the prison chaplain, a small, older man with a few wonderfully snowy hairs crossing a balding pink scalp. I never had any doubt he was a man of genuine faith, called to a hard ministry. But he was a pest. I'd had to throw him out of the kitchen several times for trying to start a prayer group. If I turned my back on him, he'd sneak into the office with a convict and start a counseling session, and I'd have to chuck him out again.

I returned to the kitchen, frustrated that Hegsted was the best the prison had to offer. I didn't know what White Grass needed, exactly — a tribal ritual, a psychiatrist, a sedative — but I was certain he didn't need an old Protestant minister.

Only Reed and Mackey remained in the kitchen; the rest of the crew had gone. At Rothe Hall, if a man's work was done, he could go back to his bunk. The convicts usually hung around anyway, having coffee and talking. Today, they wanted to get as far away as they could from White Grass' anguish.

Every few minutes, another cry sounded.

After one particularly strangled moan, Mackey said, "That old man's gone for good."

I thought so, too.

It might have been 20 minutes before Hegsted arrived. Dressed in his worn black suit, he was solemn and subdued. He walked to within a few feet of White Grass. I was afraid he was going to launch into a sermon or force White Grass to his knees to pray. He didn't.

"I'm so sorry, White Grass," he said. The words were so simple and heartfelt, and his voice was filled with such genuine sorrow and compassion, that I felt tears come to my eyes.

White Grass cried out again.

Hegsted whispered to him, then remained where he was, a gentle presence a few feet away.

White Grass covered his face with his palms, and his head moved, so slowly, back and forth.

Then Hegsted took a few steps forward and placed a hand on White Grass' back.

I watched until Charlie told me to go in and serve the noon meal.

All the convicts who worked the ranch — in the dairy, in the slaughterhouse and out on horseback with the cattle — had been brought back to Rothe Hall on a bus for their lunch, and they first heard the cries as I had. They came through the line, all of them wanting to know what was going on and how White Grass was doing. I told them the little I knew.

Captive Hearts: Inside a state prison, a lesson in compassion


As I served the meal, the time between cries grew longer, and then — about 40 minutes after Hegsted arrived — they stopped.

When I finished serving, I hurried outside again.

White Grass and Reverend Hegsted stood over the mother skunk's den, silent. The sad old Indian and the white-haired Protestant minister held hands, looking down at the bodies.

It was a beautiful day, that day, a long-awaited spring day in Montana. Gradually, some of the kitchen crew — Mackey, Reed and Pop — came and peeked out the door. Charlie and the sergeant and I stood there, useless; we'd witnessed the storm, and now, its passing.

"I wish to hell I knew what that goddamned minister said to him," said Charlie.

I did, too.

Hegsted spent the day at Rothe Hall comforting White Grass. Late in the afternoon, they came inside and sat at a table in the dining hall. A few convicts on the kitchen crew paid their respects, patting White Grass on the shoulder and saying how sorry they were about the skunks. White Grass didn't look up.

Reed and Mackey warmed up a bowl of soup and brought it over; White Grass didn't touch it. But he sipped at the cup of water that Pop brought over.

At times, White Grass started to weep again, and Hegsted said something softly to him, or simply put a hand on his shoulder. Somehow, over the hours, he led White Grass to still waters.

The terrible day had ended.

After working as a professional cook for 15 years, William Bonham began a career as a voice-over for radio and TV commercials. Semi-retired, he currently lives in San Francisco.


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