I’m sitting here reminiscing on the years I spent behind bars, and I can’t help but recall the holiday seasons I lived through. To be exact, I spent 18 Christmases and 17 New Years days incarcerated.
Each year the staff distributed Christmas packages with cookies, candy and various snacks inside. Over the years the bags got slimmer and slimmer, but we always looked forward to those treats. The commissary department would add special items for sale during the holiday season. Some of the items were: chocolate covered cherries, Marshmallow Fluff, Guava paste, crab meat and perfumed lotions (Cool Water was a favorite). We would really be ecstatic if we could convince the commissary committee to add pajamas to their inventory.
Prisons are so bleak and somber that it doesn’t take much to raise the morale. In prison, it’s the little things that make the difference. In the female prisons we would hold decorating contests. The women in each unit would ban together and decorate the dorms based on a central theme. The winning unit would be allowed to see a movie of their choosing in the gymnasium, with free popcorn.
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It’s funny to me how humans are able to adapt to situations. Adaptation is truly the greatest human skill. In prison we learned to be content even during the midst of the deepest pain and sorrow. Many women would send handmade scarves, gloves and sweaters to their children during the Christmas season. I remember one day I sent my son a t-shirt with a graphic design that one of my peers had painted. It showed a microphone and his name was sprawled across the top. He talked about that t-shirt for years.
On Christmas morning women would line up to use the telephones. In some cases there were about six pay phones for 150 women. I can remember trying to escape my present conditions for 15 minutes while the phone was passed from one family member to another. We exchanged pleasantries until a dreadful beep signaled the end of the call. If you had another $4.00 to spare, you could make an additional call, but you had to wait 45 minutes before the system allowed you to get through again. Everything was controlled.
The Christmas meal usually consisted of something deemed “special,” like Cornish hen with various finishings. We stood in long lines every year while we waited our turn to eat, stuffing ourselves in an effort to consume our meal before our time was up. We always waited in line with a group of our friends and sat at a table together even if we had to wait longer.
There was always that someone behind those walls who made tough times more bearable, who made you laugh behind your tears and feel loved despite your loneliness. Many of those women remain incarcerated. My thoughts are with them today and I can only hope someone, or something is adding joy to their lives.