In my hierarchy of favorite holidays, there is not even a close second. My all-time favorite holiday, more favorite than all the other holidays put together with a birthday thrown in on top, is Christmas. I am a true fan of the season. I love shopping for gifts. I love going to the malls. I love listening to caroling in the malls by high school choirs. I love Christmas pageants. I am a zealous believer that more miracles occur at Christmas time than any other time. Christmas is great.
On December 7, 1981, I walked out of Huron Valley Men’s Prison a free man. I was the first prisoner to leave Huron Valley. I previously spent nearly 10 years in Jackson and Marquette prisons. My conviction was overturned by the United States District Court, and I was released on a personal bond. Needless to say, being released from Huron Valley Men’s Prison on a personal recognizance bond in a first-degree murder case is pretty miraculous.
My favorite memory of Christmas is 1984. It was the first and only Christmas I spent with Linda, my former fiancée. It was additionally magical because the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in November that year and we attended Game 4. Much of that jubilance carried over into the holidays.
My world came crashing down in the spring of 1985. The United States Court of Appeals reversed my reversal, and I was ordered to return to prison. I had been free for nearly three and a half years. I lived a sober, crime-free, productive life where I maintained steady employment, was active in my community and had no negative contact with authorities.
My re-adjustment back into prison life was not nearly so smooth. There were a lot of Christmases between 1985 and 2002 that were pretty miserable because of my outlook and attitude about Christmas in prison. It became the one time of year my friends avoided me.
Everything turned around in 2002. Some friends pulled me into a project that changed my life and my attitude toward Christmas in prison.
We pooled together some money and put on a Christmas party for an entire unit (96 prisoners). The feedback from the prisoners forever changed me. We continued the Christmas party every year through 2011. I am appending a copy of the story I wrote a few years ago about the Christmas party. I hope you enjoy it.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
This story grows from an event that no longer occurs but needs to be told before it can no longer be verified. The tradition began 15 Christmases ago, with a small group of men from the Keryx program. Keryx is a three-day ecumenical Christian retreat specifically for prisoners in the prison setting.
Father Martin, one of the original sponsors of Keryx (formally known as One nsors Own Kairos), sent brother Dave $50 and told him to celebrate Christmas with some of the men.
Dave received a time reduction from his sentencing court shortly afterwards. Dave would soon celebrate his Christmases with his “free-world” family.
Dave’s bunkie, Big Gene, became the lightning rod for the Christmas party.
Big Gene seemed taller than my 6’3″ frame. Big Gene would make two of my 180 pounds. Big Gene was a bear of a man. In fact his disposition reminded me of a bear; the bear called Gentle Ben.
Do you know anything about prison life? For the novice, especially the cooking novice, there are microwave ovens in some prison housing units. The prison commissary usually sells staples like tortilla shells, beef sticks, tuna fish, rice, beans, cheese, pickles, barbecue sauce, etc. Additionally, sometimes there are vending machines in housing units which sell cold soda pop.
To get an understanding of certain things that occur later in this story, here is a description of the housing unit. The unit is configured like a diamond. There are four rooms, or cells, along (to use a baseball analogy) the first and third base lines, and eight rooms along both back walls; 24 rooms total.
There are two floors, like an upper and lower deck. The lower floor is sunk into the ground five feet, like a dugout or subbasement. The rooms are double-bunked. The common area, or infield, to stay with the baseball analogy, is called base.
There are six tables, some with four chairs at each table for relaxing, playing chess, dominoes, cards, or board games. The unit is roughly 3600 square feet and houses 96 prisoners.
I was invited to that first Christmas party. We had beef burritos, a pile of chips, some cookies and a cold pop. It may not have been the same as celebrating with the wife and kids but it was enough to bring the message home. Christmas is about giving.
A few brothers attending that first celebration went home the following year. They wanted the tradition to continue so they sent donations to Big Gene’s family. The Christmas party was immediately dubbed “Brother Gene’s Christmas Party.” The donations grew so large the Christmas party expanded from a few prisoners to the whole unit.
Big Gene calls this story the story of a thousand small miracles. I am focusing on two particular events that leave one pondering the wonder of Christmas.
Christmas holidays can be stressful. In prison there are many security concerns over the holidays. For instance there are staff shortages because the administration tries to accommodate senior employees with time off for the holidays. On the other hand, prisoners do not get time off, so we try to accommodate each other by setting up wine to aid with the holiday festivities. Staff tends to shake down more diligently around the holiday season, and tensions usually run high.
Meals in prison are served three times a day in the prison chow hall. There are eight housing units in this prison, and the chow rotation is staggered. The chow hall holds only 150 prisoners. The first year the Christmas party was expanded to the whole unit. Nobody went to chow. Going received food, it dawned on Big Gene nobody went without a pop. The machine gave up about 40 free pops – the exact number that would have been purchased with the $50.00 card.
My writing does not do justice to the impact this annual Christmas party had on people. A year after the parties stopped, prisoners were skeptical they ever took place. Had I not participated, I am not sure the prisoners would believe this story either.
I heard so many comments like, “I can’t believe anything like this would happen in prison,” they lost their charm. I witnessed grown men with tears of gratitude in their eyes from having their minds distracted from spending Christmas in prison. I saw men overjoyed from winning a simple prize because they had never won anything in their entire lives. The most amazing thing is the spirit carried over into the rest of the year. It could only happen through the miracle of Christmas.
The tradition of the annual Christmas party lasted nine years. The parties were fully funded by ex-prisoners, friends and family members. The prizes included 30 bags of mixed store goods of values from $5 to $25. The prizes were awarded raffle style but required correct answers to Christmas trivia. The menus always included two burritos; choices of beef and beans, tuna wrap, or vegetarian; a pile of chips, a row of cookies and cold pop.
The average number of critical incidents in a housing unit at this prison was 10 per year. The unit in which these Christmas parties occurred had only one critical incident throughout all the nine years of parties.
Going to chow is optional, but when nobody from the unit showed up to the chow hall, the sergeant grew alarmed. He walked over to the unit to investigate.
To get the full impact of what the sergeant actually saw, there is a dynamic you should understand: The racial composition in Michigan prisons is about 70% non-white to 30% white. Approximately 60% of the non-white population is Muslim. Most of the non-white population is African-American, but Michigan has the largest Arab population in the United States.
The prison classifies Arabs, Hispanics and Native-American in the non-white composition. Also the Muslims in this housing unit are very devout.
When the sergeant came into the housing unit, the main body of the party was just breaking up. It was loud and everyone was congregated in a tight group in a corner on the lower floor, shaking hands, back-slapping, even hugging and wishing each other Merry Christmas. The sergeant grew agitated and more alarmed. He immediately lit into the unit about the large body of prisoners congregated in one area and all the noise.
To the CO’s credit he did not cow to the sergeant’s outburst. He told the sergeant to actually look at what was taking place.
Muslims, Christians, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, old gangsters, young gangbangers, were all wishing each other Merry Christmas, smiling and hugging. What more could he ask for?
This might read like a small thing. But it is H-U-G-E!!
For one thing, change does not come easy to prison administrators. For another, trust does not come easy to correction officers. And last but not least, for prisoners from such diverse backgrounds to come together in brotherly love is unprecedented.
Big Gene approached the CO later to apologize for getting him in trouble with the sergeant. The CO said, “Yeah, he chewed my behind, but that’s what behinds are for—chewing.”
Since that Christmas the unit co has been dressed down by sergeants and shift commanders during and after ensuing Christmas parties, and he always digs his heels in and emphatically states, “I got this.” In other words, this is his unit.
A few years ago the prison system changed the shopping schedule shortly before Christmas. Under the previous schedule we shopped weekly. The new schedule was every two weeks. The spending amount was increased, but the change required strategic planning for the Christmas party. The cost of the party had escalated up to around $800.00. Even with increased spending limits, Big Gene could not turn in an order for $800.00 worth of store goods,
It took a lot of help, a lot of trust, and all that money.
The party was all set to begin. All the cooking was done. The cooking crew had been making burritos since 3:00 am. (It was done this way to avoid monopolizing the microwaves during the daytime hours.) The chips and cookies were all laid out on paper towels. Prisoners were lined up to receive their food and pop.
It happens that the spending limits on the vending cards were increased when the shopping schedule changed. Unfortunately, the pop machine was not calibrated to recognize the increase on the vending card. We had a pop card with $50.00 on it and the pop machine would not honor it. The previous limit was $45.00. This meant we would be short 40 pops. What would that do to the party? Would we create an ugly situation?
Big Gene directed the pop runners to continue purchasing pops until the usable cards were empty. Pop would get passed out on a first come, first serve basis. About mid-way through purchasing pop, the pop machine began going crazy and giving free pops. (This machine had never given a free pop in 20 years and has never given a free pop since that night.)