Wednesday, December 21, 2011


DATELINE: Dec. 21, 2011

I was the first person called to the visiting park last Saturday when my dear friend, Libby, drove across Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and then south to the Wakulla Annex to spend a few hours with me.

The visiting area was still uncrowded at nine AM. A brightly-decorated Christmas tree drew my eyes to the far corner. The prison Christmas season had officially begun, in one small way, weeks later than the commercial hoopla in “free America.”

Since Wakulla Annex began the conversion to a “faith- and character- based” correctional institution a few months ago, the weekend visiting population has steadily increased. There were times in the past year that only ten to fifteen prisoners were in the visiting park at the Noon count, but more recently it has been crowded with sixty to ninety or so visitors coming in to see thirty prisoners. On Thanksgiving Day some people waited over one and a half hours to buy sandwiches from the canteen, then lined up for an hour to heat their purchases in the two anemic microwave ovens.

That may sound like a crowd, but out of 1500 prisoners in this camp, thirty men receiving visits comprises only two per cent of the prison population. Ninety-eight per cent of the prisoners do not receive visits from family or friends, and that is a shame. That fact should worry “society.”

Why? Because the vast majority of the 100,000 Florida prisoners will leave prison one day, and without a support group of family and friends to help them adjust to freedom, to have a place to stay, to help find a job, to lead a law-abiding life, many of those released will be rootless, unemployed, and on the fast-track back to prison after they return to a life of crime. Those are the Lost Boys.

Holidays are hard times in prison. No one is immune! We watch the news clips of families shopping in the malls, spending money, smiling, laughing, carrying i-Pads, i-Phones and plasma TV’s to their brand new SUV’s, juxtaposed with scenes of homeless families living in their junk cars, ragamuffin children with tousled hair carrying canned goods from the food bank or waiting in a long line for a tray at the church soup kitchen, and wonder if our own families and children are in similar lines.

Many do not know. Their telephones were cut off months ago. They cannot expect to receive any money from home when their families have already lost the foreclosure struggle. The jobs dried up and the unemployment ran out. The poor feel like political pawns in the health care and prescription drug battle being waged in Washington. For many men the joy of Christmas is buried beneath worries for their loved ones’ predicaments. Such situations make for short tempers and harsh words spoken in frustration, leading to violence.

There are prisoners with money and support from home, the “haves,” but times are so hard that most keep their money and canteen food purchases to themselves, resulting in the “have-nots” staring enviously at better-off prisoners sharing with other prisoners with money. The ones whose families sacrifice to send their loved ones something hold tight to what they have, fearing when that runs out, there will be no more. I decided to try to do something about it.

There is nothing new under the sun, and the same holds true in prison. Over ten years ago, at a very tough prison, we had a similar situation. The haves and the have-nots were sharply divided, and there was no Christmas spirit. The prison certainly had no plans to make things better. If anything happened, it was up to us to put it together.

We put together a Christmas party. Those who were blessed with money pledged to chip in for enough food to feed everyone in our housing unit. Even the greediest crabs contributed a few dollars a-piece. Fixing up a large quantity of Ramen noodles, adding cheese squeezers, chopped up beef and cheese sticks and other canteen items, served with saltines and Ritz crackers, sharing with everyone, it wasn’t a feast, but the closest we’d get to one where we were.

The guards freaked when we began singing Christmas carols. They watched from their glass booth, but didn’t intervene, and became even more puzzled when sixty men stood in a large circle holding hands and reciting the Lord’s prayer. Someone read from the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story, and a few men said prayers. Everyone was welcomed, and in that circle stood a couple of Jewish prisoners and several Muslims. Our only avowed atheist sat on a bench during the prayers, but he was seen saying the words to “Silent Night” when we sang the Christmas carols.

That little Christmas party changed the atmosphere in our unit. Men were friendlier. More “haves” shared what they had with the “have-nots.” One man said he never realized how good giving things away could make you feel. The guards looked at us differently, too, a grudging respect.

If it worked then, it could work now. A couple weeks ago, I approached a few better-off prisoners and asked them to participate in a Christmas party. I told them it would cost them some money. Everyone agreed instantly. Great idea. They went around to their friends and recruited them. Soon, over half the eighty-plus prisoners in this unit had signed on pledging to chip in what they could to the group party. Others volunteered to form the core of our Christmas carolers, to lead the rest in Christmas songs for a week ahead of time, to seed the Christmas spirit. The Muslims agreed to contribute food, too. We are all People of the Book, they say. We respect their beliefs, and they respect ours.

Libby copied twenty-four of the best-known Christmas songs and mailed them to me, so we’d have the words and music. I gave a set to our choir leader, and that set off a medley of impromptu Christmas caroling.

“I like this one.”

“Let’s sing this one.”

“This is my favorite.”

“Man, it’s been so long.”

I am not immune to the power of Christmas songs. Each year I try to go to at least a couple of chapel Christmas programs just for the chance to sing those old favorites in a group. There is a healing effect. But intermingled with that healing effect can come some emotional pain as the significance of our separation from family and loved ones sinks in. So it was for me with “Silver Bells,” for some reason.

“Silver bells, silver bells…it’s Christmas time in the city. Ring-a-ling, hear them ring…soon it will be Christmas Day."

Singing those first two verses to myself triggered an upwelling of emotion as it hit me again, what I had lost as I approached my thirty-fourth Christmas in prison, far from home.

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks…dressed in holiday style. In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile…and on every street corner you’ll hear...

Silver bells, silver bells…It’s Christmas time in the city. Ring-a-ling, hear them ring…soon it will be Christmas Day.”

For some reason my sinuses became severely congested. No, those weren’t tears. It was just an allergy. Whatever it was, I had to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The images evoked by those simple words created a longing for a regular life “out there,” from whence I am banished and exiled, where bright lights and decorations are everywhere, even with the economy, and families come together to celebrate Christ’s birth despite the commercialization. We are denied that.

When you join with family and friends to exchange gifts, and sit down to share your turkey, ham, or Christmas goose with loved ones, we’ll be having our own celebration in prison. Our noodles and cheese on saltines, and peanut butter squeezed onto cookies may not be as traditional and delectable as the food you get at Publix, but it will be much-appreciated by those who share it with their less-fortunate brethren. Isn’t that some part of what Christmas is all about?

1 comment:


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