Christmas brightens the 'big house'

My favorite Christmases have been the ones I've spent behind bars.

For the past seven years, I have volunteered at a women's prison. The women know me as "the book lady" or "the poet lady," but my favorite role is spreading Christmas cheer.

Every year, the prison chaplain puts together 700-plus gift bags, one for each inmate. Each bag contains a pocketsize calendar, deodorant, a small bottle of shampoo, soap, hand lotion, and two pieces of candy. The bags aren't worth much monetarily. But to the women, they are priceless.

Christmas in prison can be quite a desperate time. Prison rules prohibit the women from receiving any Christmas presents. (Too much of a security risk.) There are no decorations. No one visits. The inmates, most of whom are mothers, miss their children. The gift bags are the one thing the women look forward to on Christmas Day.

Christmas in the "big house" starts very early. The chaplain and her helpers meet before dawn in the main building. We volunteers sign in at the Bubble, the glassed-in control room, and then wait for an officer to take us into a room called the P-Trap."

There, we are searched for weapons and other contraband. Off go our shoes, our belts, and our watches. One by one, we pass through the metal detector, and if it doesn't buzz, we sign the log book. The officer stamps our wrists with invisible ink. If you don't have that ink on your wrist, the officer won't let you out later.

We climb a flight of stairs and wait for the officer who will escort us, with our overloaded cart, through every unit in the compound (except "Max").

It's 7 a.m. when we reach the first unit; the women aren't out of their cells yet. So we stop and wait for the unit officer to open their doors. He does this by unlocking a control box on the wall. Inside, there's a large switch. Flip it one way, and every room unlocks at once. Flip it the other way, and everyone's in for the night.

Most of the women are half asleep when we start. They stumble toward their doors in pajamas and curlers. Many of them are crying already.

Time for us to swing into action.

We split into three teams as we move down the first hall. Two volunteers on each side lead the way. One hands out the gift bags, and the other greets each inmate. The rest of our group, another six to 10 volunteers, provides the "entertainment."

I wish I could say that we are a talented bunch. Unfortunately, we sing off-key and we can't remember all the words to even one Christmas song. We tend to favor "Feliz Navidad" because it's so simple. We improvise and hum a lot - and forget about our dancing. Half of us kick the wrong way, and the other half kick two beats after we're supposed to.

At first, the women just shyly smile. But the chaplain, a bubbly, elfin woman, darts from room to room, telling them to sing along with us. One woman joins in, then another. The unit gets louder and louder. "You are sooo bad," the women tease us. "Who booked you guys? We want a refund!"

By the time we get to the third or fourth unit, the women are wide awake and can hear us coming. They are laughing and singing before we enter. Sometimes the unit officer tells them to "pipe down," but the order is always ignored.

Hour after hour, unit after unit, we make our way through the prison. Some of the cells are shared by two women, others have six in tight quarters. But always the women respond the same way: The sillier we get, the more they smile.

One year, the officer who escorted us asked why we acted in such an undignified manner. "Can't you sing something nice, like 'Silent Night'?"

The chaplain did have us sing "Silent Night" in the next unit. We walked slowly, somberly, through each hall. Every inmate was in tears before we finished.

"Man," exclaimed the officer, once we were back outside, "Now I understand."

Some of my relatives still don't understand why I spend Christmas morning with felons. Some of the inmates have done terrible things. But Christmas, to me, is about second chances. It's about finding the light in yourself and others.

Inmates don't have much materially - even toiletries are limited - and they aren't allowed to give anything to volunteers. Even handmade cards are forbidden, as are hugs or handshakes.

As we make our way through the halls, the women greet us by name: "Hi Jim, hi Lisa, hi Elizabeth...." They thank us for coming again and again, singing and waving until we've left the building.

After we've gone through all the units and the prison hospital, we start winding back toward the entrance. Sunlight dances on the razor wire. Christmas doesn't leave anyone untouched here.

My first year, I saw a rookie officer bend down and hug a white-haired lifer in the infirmary. "Merry Christmas, Mary," he said. He could have gotten fired for that, but no one in our group had seen a thing. Not one blessed, beautiful thing.

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