Sunday, January 12, 2014


 DATELINE: Christmas Day, 2013

Two years ago I wrote an article, “A PRISON CHRISTMAS PARTY WITH THE LOST BOYS ,” about how we put together an special event at my previous prison. Prison, like society, can be characterized  by the haves and have nots, prisoners who have families and friends who provide for them, and those who do not, who have little or nothing. Since close to ninety-five percent of prisoners do not receive family visits, Christmas is an especially  difficult time for prisoners separated and estranged from their families. Men get even more depressed and short-tempered under such conditions, and the people in charge do little to deal with the situation.

About a week before Thanksgiving, I approached a number of fellow prisoners in my housing area, and asked them to read the lost boys article. The follow up conversation with each one went something like this:
            “What did you think?”
            “It was very good. I wish I could write like that.”
“I meant the Christmas party idea, those with money chipping in to feed everyone in the dorm, everyone together.”
            “That was great.”
            “If we put together a Christmas program for re-entry, will you help and participate?”
            “Some men in here have nothing.”
            “Can you pledge money to help pay for the party?”
            “Will five bucks help?”
            “It’s a start. Would you volunteer to join the Christmas carol singers?”

So it began small, talking to each one, one-on-one, seeking agreement and commitments, In prison, it is better to speak to individuals face-to-face, rather than making broad announcements. I made a list, and onl had two men out of seventy-two say they weren’t interested.
            “I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“That’s okay. You eat, don’t you? You are welcome to join in. We’ll have enough food for everyone.”
            “I doubt that.”
            “Wait and see.”

Three men volunteered to cook three separate offerings, to provide a choice, and put together teams of workers led by a Mexican, a black man, and a young white man. Another man volunteered to make a prison cake out of honeybuns, cookies and hot cocoa mix. The haves began purchasing cases of Ramen noodles, crackers, cheese squeezers, tuna, sausage and bags of chili from the sparsely stocked prison canteen. The Christmas carol singers practiced.

I went to the security sergeants who supervise the dorm, told them our plans, that it would be a positive occasion, building Christmas spirit and good feelings. They approved it.

Things began coming together. Libby generously obtained a stack of Christmas carols, made copies, and sent them in. One night after a practice, the Christmas carol singers returned to the dorm, pumped up, laughing. I asked one why he was so excited.
            “We sang the 12 Days Of Christmas.”
            “How did it go?”
            “We nailed it!”

A few doubters and naysayers scoffed.
            “It’s not gonna work.”
“It’ll be the same as usual. The guys with money will have a big party, and we’ll watch them eat.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “You’ll see.”

This re-entry program I am in consists mostly of prisoners who have four years or less before release, and volunteered to take part in the State of Florida’s attempts to provide transition from prison to free society. Most prisoners are ill-prepared for return to freedom, uneducated, unskilled, poor or absent work history, unresolved drug problems, no family support, no place to stay, no job prospects. The odds of their return to criminal life and prison are high.

In theory, providing programs, counseling, and options that will better prepare these men to become law-abiding, self-supporting citizens will not only salvage otherwise wasted lives, the human costs, but will also save the taxpayers millions of dollars a year in incarceration costs.

In fact, the prisoners who volunteer for the programs re-entry offers have a significantly better statistical chance of getting out of prison and staying out, as opposed to those who refuse to participate in self-improvement and self-awareness programs. To some extent, that is due to the “self-selection process,” prisoners who want to change their lives, who want to break the cycle of incarceration, who realize that what they’ve been doing didn’t work, have a much better prognosis for success than those who intend to get out when their sentences expire and return to drugs and crime. They are “self-selecting,” too — choosing failure.

Not all the prisoners in re-entry are “short-timers.” A small core group of “lifers,” men with long sentences, mostly older, more mature, some having served decades in prison and getting out one day, while others may never get out. These men act as mentors to the mostly younger men with short sentences, providing a calming influence, father figures to some extent.

What is lacking in most prisons is a sense of community and responsibility — not just being responsible for oneself and his family, but also the prison community the man has been cast into. In some small way, something as innocuous as a Christmas program can jumpstart that process and change men’s lives.

I made up a flyer advertising the Christmas party on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. There are too many distractions on Christmas Day. The flyer served as a daily reminder that something would be happening, and everyone was invited to attend.

There is a large whiteboard on the dorm wall, perhaps five feet high and six feet wide. At the top, in colored letters, are the words, “RE-ENTRY CHANGES LIVES,” with a couple of cartoonish convicts in striped uniforms holding out unlocked handcuffs. This whiteboard is underutilized, often having anonymous, ungrammatical and misspelled adages and quotations from unknown sources posted on it, intended to uplift and encourage. I decided to wipe off the board and start something new.

Libby donated dry erase markers for use in the creative writing class I am teaching, so I started out with a large, calligraphic-style red “Merry Christmas,” at the top, with a border of green holly leaves and red berries. A Christmas tree filled up the left bottom corner. The prison doesn’t put up Christmas trees anymore, perhaps to placate atheists, but the majority of men in re-entry go to chapel services of one denomination or other. Christmas trees are part of our American tradition and culture, and even the small minority of Muslims, Jews and Hebrew Israelites expressed their approval of the colorful tree. It helps that I can draw.

A Christmas card that Libby sent me had a nice silhouette of palm trees and three wise men on camels leading off into the distance, so I reproduced that, with a star overhead. A dove, a symbolic Bethlehem in the distance, “Peace On Earth, Goodwill Toward Men,” the first stanza pf “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a “Feliz Navidad” for the Hispanics, and the blank whiteboard had morphed into a Christmas spirit generator. Prisoners admired it, and guards came to see it. No dissents.

Another prisoner said he had made a Christmas tree last year out of cardboard and construction paper. The “Merry Christmas” board inspired him to do something to contribute. He asked me what I thought.
            “Do it.”

He did, with the help of several other men, and then took a cardboard box, turned it sideways, and made a redbrick “fireplace,” with red, yellow, and orange flames. Then they made a garland of colored paper connected in rings, and hung them up. In just a few hours the drab “dorm” had been converted into colorful Christmas displays.

About forty men, the haves, contributed over three hundred dollars of food so everyone, about seventy men, would be able to share a Christmas meal.

The time came for the program to begin. We asked everyone to make a circle. This was the tricky part. Would everyone circle up, or would some “hard-heads” refuse to participate, jeopardizing the intent of the program? This is also the amazing part. Two female officers in the glass control booth watched in amazement as the men circled up and spontaneously gripped each others’ hands. One man asked for prayer requests on this special day. Most prisoners’ requests followed a similar theme:
            “Please pray for my family, that they be safe.”
            “Pray for my mother. She has been sick.”
            “Pray for my daughter.”
            “My wife and children.”
            “Pray for the staff.”
            “The homeless, and those who have less than us.”
            “Our service men and women, protecting us.”
            “Please pray for our leaders and our country.”
            “Please pray for me.”

And he did. Five minutes later, after a fervent prayer followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the Christmas carol singers picked up the pace with “Silent Night, Holy Night,” Joy To The World,” “12 Days of Christmas,” and by popular demand, “Jingle Bells,” which everyone joined in.

A few men asked to speak to the group.

One man was visibly moved with emotion and spoke in a loud voice. “I’ve been in prison a long time, and I have never, I have NEVER seen or experienced anything like this in prison. Look around you. Every man in this building is standing in a circle together, quiet, listening to prayers, singing Christmas carols. Some of you may not realize it, but this doesn’t happen in prison. This is something I will always remember, and I hope you do, too. This tells me that we can be united, as a community, like we are supposed to be. That’s all I have to say.”

Then the food was passed out and shared by everyone, the haves happily serving the have nots. Someone plugged in an MP3 player and several men began an impromptu dance contest, to cheers and clapping. The officers alternated coming out and watching. Smiles, laughter and joy. It was amazing.

A little later, a Puerto Rican man approached me. “I’ve only been in prison five years, but this has been the best Christmas I’ve ever had. I know you put it all together, or none of this would have happened. I want to thank you for doing it. I’ll be out next year, and I’m going to send you some pictures of me on the street. I’m not coming back to prison.”

“Good for you,” I said.

That made it all worthwhile. Merry Christmas.



wrong perceptions! said...

Hi and God Bless.I have been following your blog from south africa since you started it and all I've got to say is that I know its horrible in prison but The Lord knows why your journey in life was made so difficult. He loves You and He needed you to put some love and show people that the Lord is alive and living in the 'devils playground'-(prison) I have so much admiration for you!one thing is certain tho, the Lord Blessed all the prisons you were already in by placing you there because I'm sure you left a everlasting impression on convicts and staff alike! God Bless and Prosperity to you. AMEN.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas to you both and all you love whom love you. So happy to read these top posts that something obviously has gone well. I have found Ober at the bottom of a pile of dirty property deals and intimidation. Imagine your surprise. All the questions I kept asking finally panned out. I was forced to flee my home in FL. It got THAT BAD. Not only did I bust these property thieves in an illegal foreclosure but I discovered who murdered my Godson. So ... thereya go Charlie and Libby. I feel I suffered a great deal by speaking up for Charlie and I only relate that by way of saying: IT WAS WORTH IT. It was killing me not to know who murdered him. Those who came out to threaten me ... and one I just discovered today warned me to shut up back in 2010... showed their hand in other ways.

So about the time Charlie comes out, that murderer (A REAL MURDERER FOR A CHANGE FROM HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY NOT A FRAME JOB) will be headed in to take his place. Not just one of them. I was forced to do the research and work myself.. the involvement went STRAIGHT UP.

Much love and peace to both of you. Looking forward to see you both in person some fine day.

Anyway, it all worked out. A lot of pain and a lot of loss. But when I step across the realm to where my people wait, I will not hang my head in shame. I will have done what I could do, to the very best of my ability. Even though I was scared to death most of the time... I was more scared to let it continue .. it was going to consume my entire family. They had already begun the same activity with my own child..... and so ... in talks with you and Charlie I was able to put many things together.
Thank you.
I'm sorry I would never write in person. Literally I am being chased to death by these people. If they can't chase you to death they threaten to frame your innocent children. I thought it was all over property. But no, it was a murder cover up.
At any rate... you're sort of caught up now. Oh and tell Charlie that I know things about Bondi now. Lots of things and he and everyone should be aware that these people are frightening. No one knows that better than Charlie ... there have been a few recent attempts on my life. So ... I just talk more. You never know when time will fail and so you do what you can while you can.

OH all that stuff I was telling you about the publix and tha(never mind that's for email when I get time)