Deck the (Prison) Halls

PrisonWe're always told that the holiday season is a time to come together and appreciate our families. But what if one of your family members is incarcerated? How does one get in the "holiday spirit" while waiting to talk to a loved one from behind glass? How festive does a prison or jail look in the holiday season? For many young adults, incarceration leaves a mark on the holidays as well as the rest of their year.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Most prison inmates have families on the outside. For example, two-thirds of the men incarcerated in the US have children. How do these children view incarceration? How do they see their own fathers and mothers? What is it like growing up in this kind of environment? Statistics show that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than the general population to end up in prison themselves. It has also been shown that keeping family bonds strong amongst parolees has significantly lowered the rate of re-arrest.

Once a year during the holidays, most people reflect on the importance of family and community. But for the incarcerated and their families, the absence of a normal family life does more than frustrate. For some, it can also be inspiring. WireTap hears from two young adults who have grown up with incarcerated parents about the realities, hardships and lessons that have come out of their experiences.

Angela Vela is a twenty-one year old student who will be transferring to UC Berkeley in the Fall of 2003. Currently, she is the newest member on the Board of Directors of Centerforce, a non-profit organization that provides family support services to the incarcerated and their loved ones. Her father has been in prison since her childhood.

Are there any messages associated with the holidays that you’d like to comment on?

Like "peace to men, goodwill to all," that kind of thing? I would comment specifically on the "goodwill to men" because I find that a lot of times, people get wrapped up in their own little lives, their own situations and they forget to take other’s situations into account. Specifically, it deals with my father being a prisoner. People stop looking at my father as a human being and start looking at him as a number or an inmate. They don’t see him as a person. Goodwill should be thought of more in everyday life rather than just around Christmas time.

Do you have any memories or stories of the holidays that capture the uniqueness of growing up as a child of an incarcerated parent?

Yeah … I have a really funny one. One time we got to spend one Christmas on a conjugal visit before they took conjugal visits away from lifers. I remember that we didn’t have any presents; we couldn’t bring any presents in for my dad. My dad, he used to do this on every conjugal visit, but it was a little more special because it was Christmas. He would have us do a little contest, where we would have to sing or dance in front of each other. He would give us prizes and the officers would allow him to bring in some stuff that a few of his friends had made for my brother, my mom, and I. So we actually got to have a real opening-presents-type Christmas and my brother and I actually made a couple of things for my dad inside and we gave them to him. That was really cool.

Voices from Juvenile Hall during the Holidays
from The Beat Within


"This was the first holiday season I've spent away from my family, and I pray to God that it will be the last. My mom came to visit me, but I didn't thank her because I would have started to cry, and I didn't want to show everybody I was a sucka, so I waited until I got in my room and then I started crying. I cried because I miss my family."
-- Ramon

"This is my fifth Christmas in here. There’s so much stress and pain, if I don’t get a visit I’ll go insane. I’ve been locked up so long, I don’t even know when I go home."
-- Lil' Bubba

"I wish I would go home for Christmas so that I could be with my son. This is my son’s first Christmas and that’s a Christmas gift I don’t want to forget to open. So I can see his smile shine when he sees me on Christmas day."
-- Natisha


Could This Be The Christmas
Could this be the Christmas
that I would never see,
could this be the Christmas
that I wouldn’t be able to decorate a tree?
Could this be the Christmas
that I would be in the hall, with no life at all?
Could this be the Christmas
that’s just another day,
could this be the Christmas
that’s just gone away?
I will feel like my family is gone, when Christmas comes and I’m not at home.
-- Dominique

It Really Hurts
It really hurts
when you’re stuck in juvenile hall,
and you know that you’ll be in here for the holidays.
It really hurts when you gotta wake up on Christmas morning in the hall with no gifts to open.
It really hurts when you’re dressed in county clothes on the holidays.
-- Phamer 1
So presents that are made are probably more meaningful to you?

Oh yeah, definitely, I still have them.

How do you feel about the emphasis placed on spending time with family at this time of year?

I don’t think that people today really treasure or value time with their families as much as they should. I personally view it as very precious, especially during the holiday season. I lost my grandmother two years ago, so my family consists of my father, my mother and my brother and that’s about it. I want to be with my family as much as possible. But as far as other people go, the emphasis is placed in more of an economic sense, like how commercials go; they put that whole facade up and I don’t feel like that’s a heartfelt thing.

Since incarceration disrupts both families and communities, what advice would you give to others who are separated from their loved ones?

There have been two laws passed [that say] I can’t make conjugal visits to my father anymore. I can only visit him in the visiting rooms. Then he was transferred to a prison that’s four and half hours away! It makes it a lot harder for me to go and see him and the only advice I can give is no matter what happens, try and focus on the positive, focus on your love for each other. That will always keep your family together no matter how far away you are from each other.

Do you take strength or meaning from a specific cultural or religious tradition?

I pretty much take strength from all of them. I’m religious, I have a denomination but I was always taught by both my parents to look at other people’s perspective and take from those as well; not to be so set in my own beliefs that I don’t do that. I think all of them, the philosophies behind every single religion that I’ve looked at (besides Satanism or something like that) all have their good points; they are all very inspiring.

Are there special traditions that have come about from your experience of incarceration during the holiday season?

There is only one tradition that is between my father and I and it’s just because my birthday happens to fall within the holiday season. Every year on my birthday, my father will call me very early in the morning, usually about seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and play me a birthday song. That’s the only tradition we’ve been able to keep.

As the holidays revolve around the idea or community coming together, how has community been important in your own life and what do you take from it?

The prison community has been very important to me and it includes Centerforce and even friends of my father. I feel like I belong there, which has been a problem for me throughout my entire life. I have always felt like I don’t belong anywhere, even with my friends. It’s really hard. It gives me a much more positive perspective on my life, just being able to know that there are other people who know how I feel, understand what I’m going through, and are going through it themselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ll go back to what I said before; just try to keep a positive attitude. It’s really hard when you can’t be with your loved ones, and it is really, really hard because you want to share all that with them. Just remember that as long as you love them and each other a piece of them will always be with you.

Kareem Ervin is a twenty-two year old junior at Lemoyne Owen College in Memphis, TN. He is also a youth advocate and presenter for the Omega Boys Club. His mother and some of his friends have spent time in prison.

Are there any messages associated with the holidays that you’d like to comment on?

I just take the holidays as they come. I guess Christmas and Thanksgiving and the holidays -- it’s the season of family or whatever they say …

How do you feel about the emphasis placed on spending time with family in this time of year?

I feel that Christmas is about family and friends because some people don’t have strong relationships with their family but they have strong relationships with friends. [Different kinds of family situations] need to be shown on television because on television you really only see the [nuclear] family: the mother, the dad, and the kids, sometimes the grandparents come over. It’s not like that for everyone. They need to show a more diverse holiday season … like the one I grew up in.

Since incarceration disrupts both families and communities, what advice would you give to others who are separated from their loved ones?

Not to let it disrupt. Be very vocal about what is going on -- with kids and with adults. There needs to be communication about the situation, about what the incarcerated [person] is going through. The more understanding a person has, the better able they are to deal with it. For myself, information was withheld, things were covered up or people were made out to be bad because they were in jail. That was not the case, they simply made bad decisions that resulted in their actions, which resulted in going to jail. If you could understand [the situation] from a young age the transition into the holidays would be smoother.

Are there special traditions that have come about from your experience with incarceration during the holiday season?

Just understanding that my family members are all right, [those] who are incarcerated. They will be home one day to spend the holiday season -- Christmas or Thanksgiving -- with us.

Are there any other thoughts you would like to share?

Just that [those in prison] have a place and they are missed. It affects the whole family -- the little brothers, uncles, whoever -- when you are missing because you are incarcerated. So the message I would give is that you are needed during the holiday season, you are needed during the year, period.


Cat Aboudara is a twenty-five year graduate from UC Berkeley. She became interested in criminal justice while tutoring prisoners at San Quentin as an undergraduate studying Rhetoric. After graduating, she began work at Centerforce, which offers advocacy and resources for the incarcerated and their families. She met Angela and Kareem while coordinating the annual Centerforce conference in San Diego.


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