"Dorm D-1, Release!" came the booming voice of a prison guard over the loud speaker. With that, 100 inmates were "released" from the confines of the prison dormitory "D-1". It was mid-morning on December 24th, Christmas Eve, in Edgefield, SC at the federal prison camp. It was a fast-paced walk down a small hill. Why people are in a hurry to do anything in prison is still a mystery to me, but it happens.
The warden had stationed himself near the center of the camp with a pile of holiday baskets (a plastic bags) that he would hand to each inmate along with a cold handshake. It was the thought that counted. I figured the reason that the baskets were handed out on the 24th was so the warden could be at home on Christmas day...it's the way I would have done it had I been in charge.
Inmates who had seen previous Christmas' had started chatter weeks before about what the good warden would have in our annual stockings. There would be some Little Debbie cakes, a Slim Jim, a candy bar, but never chewing gum as it ended up on the bottoms of prison inmate boots, or worse, the warden's shoes. Trades of the contents had started before they even reached the inmate's hands. Meat products of unknown origin, Slim Jims, were not liked by those of the jewish faith and a hand full of African-Americans....so those were usually traded for some sweet. Bets that were lost on basketball and football games would be settled with the goodies and they made for higher stakes than the usual postage stamps or cans of mackerel.
"Merry Christmas," the warden told me as he stooped down to pick up a basket for me. We never made eye contact, which was just as well. It wasn't like this was a company party where I was expected to smooze with the boss man.
As I made my way back up to D-1, I could feel the excitement as I entered the dormitory. Voices were escalated and laughter could be heard throughout the building. Exchanges were made amongst the federal prisoners and counteroffers yelled out from yards away, negotiations were conducted at a feverish pitch. As the morning wore on, the inmates settled into their cubes and made a line to the bank of phones to call home.
Lunch would be big that day at the cafeteria, and we would be served recognizable meats of ham and turkey. There would be mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and green beans....and we would stuff ourselves, knowing that there would be no evening meal and a light meal on Christmas. A bag "dinner" could be retrieved when we were done eating the big lunch so that we could have a snack later.
It was a strange time, but many made due with what we had. It is a ritual that I remember vividly, but not for its fondness. Funny how we remember only the best and worst moments of life....when the real joy is in the middle, what we do every day.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.