A Holiday Full of Cheer and Dread

For many incarcerated people, this holiday will be their last.

November 24th, 2020

Families around the world are preparing for the upcoming holidays. Instead of making airline reservations and borrowing additional chairs for the dinner table, they are learning how to negotiate a Zoom call while timing their gift deliveries via Amazon. In many states, family dinners have been banned in the interest of our national health.

2020 will be remembered for many unpleasant things, including the loss of beloved family holidays.

For the two and one-half million men and women incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons, the bitter prospect of spending a holiday alone has been contemplated long before the onset of the coronavirus. As I’ve written before, major holidays behind bars are not a time of festivity and joy for inmates, but rather a grim reminder of how much of life has been lost through one’s incarceration.

While many men and women in prison have close families on the outside, it is often impossible for those families to visit their loved ones, due to distance and/or the expense of visiting. If a family can manage a visit, it is generally not a warm, intimate occasion, but rather a cold, distant affair, celebrated within a depressing building dimly painted, patrolled by angry corrections officers (wouldn’t you be angry if this is how you had to spend your holiday?) who are charged with ensuring no one touches an inmate, for any reason.

For perhaps the first time, those who’ve never done time are getting a taste of what it feels like to be cut off from loved ones during the holidays. They are reading up on recipes that detail how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for one or two in just one pan, one pan more than enough to handle the one drumstick that will feed the table.

In prison, such a holiday dinner would feel like a feast. There, an inmate can expect one piece of rubbery chicken — donated, perhaps, by a food company eager to dispose of its past-due inventory. Sides might include powdered potatoes and a slice of white bread.

But the bounty served is never the point of the holidays. Rather, it’s a time to share with loved ones, as we welcome into our clan young additions, argue over politics and nap during football games. It’s a time to reflect on all there is to be thankful for and express hopes for a happy and healthy new year.

For men and women deprived of their freedom, it’s instead a time to wonder if the person sitting close by might already be infected with the coronavirus, and if his or her cough might have just then sealed one’s doom. It’s a time to reflect on how one’s life sped out of control in the blink of an eye, and how friends and family deserted them, just as quickly.

For incarcerated mothers, holidays are times to wonder not if her kids are eating their vegetables and getting good grades, but whether they’ve joined a gang and will live out the week.

And for those women whose husbands are behind bars, it’s another night spent sobbing in bed, wondering how the rent payment will be met, wondering where she’ll take her kids when the landlord forcibly evicts her.

Many behind bars will be comforted in the knowledge that this may be their last holiday season spent incarcerated. Some will be released, and if they are lucky, they will negotiate their reentry successfully and enjoy many holidays to come.

But for many — so many — there will not be another holiday dinner with their cellmates to come because they have become infected and will die, because they won’t be given the latest miracle treatment and would likely be among the last to receive the new life-saving vaccination.

Instead, they will die, far from peacefully, alone and lonely. Some of their prison friends may miss them. We can only hope they will be rejoined in heaven with their loved ones, for the next holiday dinner.

— Richard Bronson

Founder/CEO of Commissary Club & 70 Million Jobs

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