All I Want For Christmas

All I Want For Christmas

Christmas is a festive time of year, when family members get together to enjoy robust meals, open presents, and share good ole’ rare quality time. During the holidays, people tend to let bygones be bygones, differences become trivial, and allow their love for one another to rule the day. It’s the season of giving, cheerful volunteering, and routinely putting others before ourselves. Who wouldn’t love this time of year? I have an answer.

Prisons across this vast country incarcerate over 2.3 million people – PEOPLE! This means tens of millions of people are directly affected by this epidemic. Countless children wake up on Christmas morning to open gifts with one parent there to watch their shining faces as they rip open packages of their favorite toys, while the other (in most cases Daddy) sits in a cell, heartbroken that he has missed out on yet another Christmas Day with his family. If he’s lucky, he’ll get to make a limited phone call later in the day to wish his family a merry Christmas, but many are not even afforded this luxury.

I have been incarcerated for fifteen years, and am beyond blessed to have had the love of my family for the entire time. Others around me, however, have not been as blessed. It breaks my heart to see so many men for so many years go without even a single phone call on Christmas. They have no one to call; they have no family to answer on the other end, no family to send them a Christmas card, no family to come visit them. They carry on as though they are unfazed by their lack of family support, but when you’ve been around these people every day, year after year, their pain is evident in their faces, and heard in their voices.

Also evident however, is the camaraderie I have witnessed over the last decade and a half during this time of year. Guys come together unlike any other time of the year, piecing together assortments of canteen ingredients to prepare “spreads,” burritos, nachos, and any other fine prison cuisine they can concoct. The banter is louder, the playing is more, well, playful, and the overall mood is palpably more jovial. It’s certainly no replacement for time spent with our families, but the surrogate families that are created in prison and on full display during the holiday season is encouraging and dare I say even heartwarming. It is, in fact, all that many have to look forward to, accepting they can expect nothing from the outside world during this season.

Some are fortunate enough to receive visits – even on Christmas itself – and cards, to remind them they are still loved, important, and dearly missed. But then I am forced to think about the impact on the family that comes to see their confined loved one. How do they feel when they leave him or her behind and return home to enjoy their Christmas dinner, and open gifts? And how do they answer the four-year old who repeatedly asks why Daddy or Mommy is not home for this special day?

For those of you who have a family member incarcerated and are in a position to support him or her through their hardship, please know they appreciate your devotion more than they can ever express. I thank you for giving them the invaluable gift of knowing they still matter, despite the rest of the world having essentially forgotten they even exist. For those of you who know someone incarcerated but haven’t, for whatever reason, found time or energy to write, visit, or send a card in years, I strongly encourage you to find a way to do so this holiday season. The gesture would be met with indescribable gratitude. As mentioned earlier, I, personally, am grateful for the unwavering support my family has shown and continues to show through my plight; others in this horrid situation are not as fortunate. Therefore, it is my solemn plea to all who read this and know someone who is incarcerated to send a card or letter, or to visit during this precious holiday season. This is all I want for Christmas.

Why Wait

Why Wait

Being in prison for now fifteen years, it’s pretty obvious that I have spent countless hours, days, and nights waiting: waiting for what will be my eventual release. On a daily basis, I’m forced — well, conditioned is more accurate — to wait for more mundane things like chow, yard, line movement (when inmates are given five minutes to come and go from their cells to a designated area), visits, etc. In fact, when I think about it, even prior to prison I spent much of my life waiting: waiting for my next paycheck, waiting for my lunch break, waiting to get off work, waiting for my vacation. It’s seemingly a natural human instinct to wait. But why? Why do we accept this bleak, uneventful reality? And perhaps more importantly, what are we giving up in the meantime?

When I came to prison fifteen years ago, I could not fathom how I was going to bring a semblance of normalcy to this dreaded situation. The only thing that actually kept me from going insane was day dreaming about my eventual release, albeit nearly two decades later. However, at some point I had to come to terms with my circumstance, accept the harsh reality I was going to be here, and begin to brainstorm how I was going to make my days meaningful — if I could.

Once I’d reached this point, I discovered something: I can make this as hard or as “easy” as I want it to be; I opted for the latter, and in doing so I began to pour all my energy into my evolution — my character overhaul, purpose-driven living, educational goals, being of service to those around me.

I focused on my character flaws (impatience, selfishness, manipulation) and began to work on each one, asking others around me to hold me accountable when they saw me exhibiting them. I approached every day with the attitude of improving myself, in turn making myself better able to help others – particularly younger inmates who may have looked up to me for how I conducted myself in prison. This gave me a purpose even in a place as dark as this. I tutored inmates of all ages and backgrounds who were working on their GEDs and other curricula because, thankfully, I was suited to do so having gotten my own GED while incarcerated. I then delved into my own educational endeavors by pursuing a college education. I didn’t know how it would turn out, where it would lead, but it didn’t matter because all that mattered was, I was improving myself personally and increasing my chances of employability when released. All of these things enabled me to keep my mind off the time – waiting – and on bettering myself on a daily basis, bettering those around me, bringing purpose and meaning to my life in a way that I’d never experienced prior to prison.

In eager anticipation of things, we often say we “can’t wait” for them to arrive. We spend each day leading up to a particular day or event in deep contemplation about it, excitement building at the mere thought of it. This should particularly resonate with those of you whose favorite holiday is Christmas. Though I’d never be the one to tell you that you should feel guilty for waiting in eager anticipation for this sacred, beloved holiday to arrive, I do caution you to not let it — or any other day or event you look forward to — prevent you from making the most of the day before you; to not lose sight of the gift of the present and the vast opportunities it yields — ones that will only be realized and seized if we’re looking for them, not if we are merely waiting for something else to arrive.

As I sit here and write, I only have two and half years left on my sentence. I have earned a master’s degree in psychology, published two books, gotten certified as a recovery mentor and expect to be state certified as a substance abuse counselor by year’s end. I have helped countless men in their own educational pursuits, addiction recovery efforts, and personal goals. I have co-facilitated the DUI victim impact panels offered here, telling my own story twice a year. My life has taken on a quality and immeasurable purpose that I could not have even imagined possible fifteen years ago when this journey began; this is directly attributable to the fact that I refused to wait: to wait for my life to pass me by in eager anticipation for a date on the calendar that would eventually come on its own.