As a child, the Christmas season was always the “feel good” time of year. Enduring asthma and Mom’s lengthy punishments could not deter me from feeling the warmth of the holiday spirit.
However, Christmas behind a prison wall can cause the greatest of holiday troopers to repress those childhood pleasantries connected to the season of giving. Prison is not the place where a man wants to be known as a warm and giving individual. At least, that was my perception when I was living on the other side of the wall.
Just before the turn of the century, I can recall a Christmas inside of this box, where the state supplied the prisoners with humanlike eating utensils. A plastic folk and knife replaced the primitive food shovel, known as the spork. The pantomime of the state’s overseers insured me I was eating something they preferred to have on their own dinner tables.
I pressed my fork into the remaining chunk of petite sirloin while simultaneously absorbing the laughter and holiday spirit dwelling amongst the prisoners in the chow hall. The atmosphere was much different that usual, but once the meal concluded, the vibe of animosity and envy boomeranged; a reality check never far from its toxic starting point.
The walk back to D-Block consisted of at least 60 red jumpsuits bouncing down the tunnel at once; most of us fighting to live while anticipating the upcoming executions of others. This was 1998, three executions had already preceded this particular holiday, and four more would come the following year. A hefty number of the death row population would slowly be depleted in the months to come. A slow death in its truest sense.
My stomach appeared to be full, but my spirits were declining fast. It was my 4th Christmas without the laughter and authentic gestures of love that comes within a tight-knit family unit. The closer I got to D-Block the more helpless I felt.
In here, these feeling could easily be construed as weak, therefore my frustration festered until another red jumpsuit asked me to block the officer’s view while he removed some of the holiday cheer from an artificial Christmas tree standing outside of the death row housing unit.
Without the slightest hint of hesitation, I obliged. I had no idea as to why we were doing this, but when I looked back at the prison’s artificial display of Christmas, I saw a faux representation of life stripped by the real lives given expiration dates.
Back on the block, the organizer of this holiday season coup used construction paper, glue, tape and straws to produce a D-Block Christmas tree. There was a sense of collective admiration for this symbolism of our unity as the ornaments were placed on a tree made from a tree. Then an older cat instructed everyone to look out of their cell windows. I was stunned by what I saw.
A line of people stood on a bridge – yelling, waving, and holding a sign that read: Merry Christmas! Complete strangers gesturing humanity. I’m in here struggling to maintain my humanness and people that didn’t know my name were reminding me of it. This place wasn’t home, but it was definitely Christmas.
Copyright © 2014 by Leroy Elwood Mann