This past Friday (also known as Good Friday) I volunteered to work in the visiting room. I’d been asked–along with several others–to man the table set up with freshly brewed coffee, assorted flavors of creamer, sugar, tea, instant cocoa, and all the utensils needed to prepare the drinks. Visitors–along with their inmate loved ones–were able to stop by the table and help themselves to what we had to offer.
Kids giggled as they walked up to the table because sitting behind it they witnessed two muscle-bound inmates ironically wearing harmless yellow bunny ears atop their heads. Yes, I wore the silly ears! But I reasoned that this was the lesser of two evils since another one of us had to dress up in a full white bunny suit–head and all! But he did it and the kids loved it!
The big bunny made his way around the visiting room (led by me because apparently the suit didn’t have eye openings), handing out Easter baskets full of goodies–ranging from chocolate bunnies to marshmallow bunnies to Nestle Crunch eggs–to the many children that were there to visit their father, uncles, and brothers. One little girl, who couldn’t have been more than a year old, clung to her daddy (an inmate) as she couldn’t decide whether to be terrified of the bunny or ecstatic that he was so close to her. She shrilled one second and laughed uncontrollably the next as the bunny entertained her. Indeed, this was the highlight of my time in the visiting room that day. This little girl was simply enjoying her interaction with a giant bunny with human qualities, completely oblivious to the environment she was in or the people it housed. All that mattered to her for those few precious minutes was my friend in his bunny costume. It was refreshing, innocent, and human–things I don’t get the privilege to encounter everyday.
Oh, did I fail to mention how this Easter celebration was made possible? Forgive me. It’s worth mentioning that ALL funds used to purchase the items for the visitors to enjoy–all week–came from inmate donations! All monies used to purchase the items inside the baskets and the baskets themselves came from inmate fundraisers conducted over the past several months. Furthermore, each visitor who had a small child was able to take a free picture–again, paid for through the funds generated from inmate contributions.
The actual facilitating, planning, purchasing, and orchestration of this event was done by The La Raza Club–one of several inmate cultural clubs here that are composed of and run by inmates. Each ethnic group (even Lifers) has a club that raises money and sponsors events for all of us to enjoy throughout the year. This Easter celebration for inmates and their families/loved ones is but one of several that is made possible through the efforts of these clubs and their fundraisers. Fundraisers are also planned and executed entirely by board members from the respective clubs. Items for purchase generally consists of various food items that otherwise would not be available to us (i.e., Papa Murphy’s pizza, chicken strips, barbecue ribs, etc.). As you can imagine, inmates are all too eager to contribute to these fundraisers as they offer a two-fold reward.
I volunteered both morning and afternoon visiting sessions on Friday, and I barely realized I’d spent six hours in there. The atmosphere was a stark contrast to what I’m used to–I think small children have a way of softening their environment. Parents and grandparents approached our table throughout their visiting sessions just to pour a cup of hot coffee and tell us how much they appreciated what we were doing. Did you hear that? THEY appreciated US! I cannot express how much that meant to me, to hear from someone wearing civilian clothes tell me they appreciated me. That’s not been an exchange I’ve had in many years now. Again, it was a simple, yet profound, human moment. In fact, everything that happened on Friday was simply human–there’s no other way to describe it.