I bet not many law-abiding citizens can say they’ve started off their Easter dinner celebrations in a line-up outside a federal prison, while a drug dog sticks its nose up their butt.
I can say with fond memory, that I have done this for several Easters and Christmases, not that many moons ago. While it is emotionally taxing, it’s not all that bad if you’re the type who can accept people at face value.
First of all, who even knew that prisons offer free turkey dinner to law-abiding citizens? Not a bad return on my tax dollars if I do say so myself.
I would say of the two drug dogs that worked in this one particular prison, the brown one was more a waste of tax dollars than turkey dinner for 75 civilians. The brown dog was more interested in licking spilled coffee off the floor than sniffing a lineup of people.
One never knows what they’re going to get on any given visit, which is why I used to look forward to visiting prison. I looked forward to the comedy, the understanding, the sharing, and the acceptance.
But not so much the heartache.
The holiday “socials” were such neat events to attend because they’re organized and carried out solely by inmates, for their friends and family members. I always wondered if it gave them a sense of pride to be able to do this for us, or if it made them feel shame that we had to give up our normal in order to be with them, behind prison walls.
But then again, what’s normal? For families of inmates, this IS normal.
Holiday dinners in prison are prepared inside the same kitchen the inmates get their daily meals from, and served by volunteer inmates. These dinners are a huge production since they only come around a couple of times each year.
An inmate photographer is always on hand for family photos, using a camera with actual rolls of film. I guess the 21st century only exists in the free world. How the family photos turned out was anybody’s guess until weeks later when the film was processed and we received our copies by snail mail.
Imagine….we all used to live this way.
An inmate DJ was also present for our dinners, fully equipped with a boom box, CDs, and some of the crappiest dance music ever made but it still made us all smile. I actually did the robot while standing in the food line waiting to load up my plate.
The DJ inmate, which was always the same guy, never had any family present at the dinners and I wondered if it made him sad to be there without people visiting him, or if he was just happy to be part of the event, considering the alternative — sitting in his unit like every other day.
So how is Easter dinner on the inside?
Spectacular! We enjoyed a full course turkey, mashed potato, salad, and stuffing ensemble, complete with gravy and buns. For dessert, I’ve never seen buckets of ice cream the size of those prison buckets.
By the end of the day, the visiting room was one giant turkey coma and I felt lucky to have stayed awake at the wheel for the hour-long drive home.
For us, the events were blessings. Instead of the usual two hours we were afforded for regular visits, these dinners allowed us to have an entire day with our loved ones.
Regular folk mingled with the inmates in one big room and it was sometimes difficult to decipher who actually belonged in the prison and who didn’t. Inmates are allowed to wear their own street clothing on weekends and special events.
We were all just normal people for a day and the inmates seemed proud to be treated as such.
For me it was very interesting to ponder that I was face to face in the same space, shaking hands with people who are serving life sentences. Yet they’re all very cordial, lively, and normal.
I recall at one particular prison social, my mother and I were seated at a table of “lifers”. This particular group of men were friends of my incarcerated family member so our seating was pre-planned by them. All we had to do was show up and get acquainted. And that, we did.
This group of men went out of their way to make sure we had one of the best days I can remember, inside OR outside of prison. They made sure our beverage cups were always full, they showed us around the areas we were permitted to be in, we danced, we laughed, we had a grand old time!
If I didn’t know we were inside a federal penitentiary I would have thought we were just at a regular pub on the street, meeting new people.
As usual, there was an inmate photographer available so when it came time for our family photos, we allowed the lifers to get in on a few of ours. They weren’t my family, but at the time they were my inmate’s family. They’re all each other had behind those walls.
I still have those photos to this day and while they make me smile, they also crush my insides because those men are still in the exact same spot now as they were back then. And they still will be for many more years to come.
I’m out here living my life.
My inmate wasn’t a lifer so he has since moved on from those particular prison days.
I remember receiving the photos in the mail a few weeks after meeting the lifers. The mail was sent by one of them because my inmate didn’t have enough money for an envelope and a stamp. The envelope had the man’s name on it so I felt compelled to write him back and thank him, not only for the photos but for sharing that day with us.
My thank you letter evolved into a period of months corresponding with him. First by mail, then by phone. I couldn’t visit in person because you can’t be on two inmate visit lists at the same time.
I never asked him any questions about why he was serving life. I figured if he wanted to talk about it he should be the one to open that door. But I won’t lie, I Googled him.
I found out he was serving life for murder and the gory details of it were glaring at me from my computer screen, on a fourteen-page court document.
I was actually shocked to find out that the general public could so easily access entire court records by running a simple Google search.
Eventually, the man did open up to me about his crime and shared as much as he was comfortable with. Deep inside, I felt proud of him for talking about it.
When the crime was committed he was a hot-tempered, 24-year-old young man with a gun. When I met him he was in his mid-thirties, and the court documents indicated he wouldn’t be eligible for parole until his mid-forties.
He was remorseful. He had even attempted to reach out to his victim’s family through a restorative justice program, but he wasn’t very well received. I think he did it for his own soul as much as for theirs.
Can you imagine having twenty-five years to sit and think about something you did in the blink of an eye? Can you imagine that blink affecting your life FOREVER?
The wrap-up to the social event where I met the lifers was eerily symbolic.
After dinner and social time, we were all ushered outside into one of the prison yards. There, a lady stood with her arm out and a blanket shrouding her arm. She removed the blanket to reveal a hawk sitting on her arm.
The prison ran a program through an animal shelter, where inmates could assist in taking care of ailing animals. This hawk had been injured some time ago and was now healthy again. We were about to witness its release back into the wild.
The lady let go of the hawk’s legs and let it take flight. Up, up and away it flew, coming dangerously close to the razor wire atop the prison fence. Then off into the distance, it disappeared.
It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach to wonder how all those lifers felt watching something else go free when they would never truly be free.
It is in stories like these where my heart feels very conflicted because while I knew this man for who he was at the time I met him, nothing can change the damage and loss he inflicted on the family of his victim so many years earlier.
I have compassion for both sides and that doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s the reality of how I feel. I’m a humanist. I can’t rightfully judge anyone. Had I met this man on the street I would have never known his past, I would only know who he is right in that minute.
How do you know that you haven’t shaken hands with a murderer?
The answer is: You don’t.