Christmas on the “Inside”: Another Face of Criminal Justice

Posted: December 21, 2013 in Criminal Justice
Tags: , ,

It’s never easy being locked up in  prison but at holiday time it’s even harder. Being separated from family and friends, from the  larger community of town, neighborhood, church, the world at large becomes more pronounced. In this piece by guest contributor Gayle Saks-Rodriguez you can feel the anguish of a young mother locked away from her children at Christmas. But as often happens with Gayle’s pieces things take a different turn and suddenly a lament becomes a realization of gratitude. You can read more of Gayle’s writing at her site My Life int the Middle Ages where this piece originally appeared and here at “Kids in the System.”

Christmas on the “Inside”: Another Face of Criminal Justice

for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

– Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird”

This morning in my prison writing workshop, a young woman awaiting sentencing broke down in tears as she shared that she had recently been falsely accused of assault. There is no doubt in my mind that she was telling the truth. The circumstances were more guilt by association and she had the strong feeling that she was judged solely on the color of her skin.

“I’ve never laid my hands on ANYBODY,” she said emphatically and convinced me more than anything I have ever been convinced of in my life.

Usually, when a woman in the class ends up in tears, and it has happened in every class I’ve led, the other women keep quiet for a moment, let her cry and then comfort her. Today was a very different scenario, the women dishing out more tough love than compassion. Even her cellmate, who had grown very fond of her, described it as a “lesson,” one that should remind her to start hanging out with a different crowd. Another said to make sure that any car she gets into has working head and brake lights, that there are no “works” in the car, and other necessary precautions to keep her from being an obvious target. She continued to cry and said “All I want is to be home with my babies for Christmas, and instead I’m here.” It was devastating and I pray that the judge believes her and that all she gets is a slap on the wrist and gets to go home to spend the holidays with her “babies.”

After the class there was a Christmas program, an “inspirational concert” performed by 9 female inmates led by one of the incredible social workers who work in the program. The concert was combined with a “graduation” from the 2-week orientation program and a celebration of a few women who had completed their GED. It took one woman 6 years, but she did it, and when she stood up to accept her certificate, the pride on her face was immeasurable.

Before the concert I wondered what could possibly inspire these women to sing, especially at this time of year. They were in prison, at Christmas, many withdrawing from drugs, most having had their children taken away, but they still wanted to sing. The first of three spirituals that they sang is called “Precious Lamb of God,” and the message—and the answer to my question—couldn’t be clearer:

When I always didn’t do right
I went left, He told me to go right
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears, Lord
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

Even when I broke Your heart
my sins tore us apart
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

New life can begin
for You washed away, washed away every one of my sins
Whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed
claim You to be the Lamb of God.

At the end of the ceremony, the female sheriff gently acknowledged that yes, the holidays were coming, and yes, they were not in an ideal setting. When the woman said to the crowd, “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,” and the inmates nodded their heads and said “You’re right,” I understood what she was saying. They could be dead, they could be stumbling through traffic high on meth, they could be jerking off some stranger for $5.00 so they could buy a pack of cigarettes. Clearly, this time of year is spun as a time of gratitude but for so many people, there seems to be little to be grateful for. However, if all it takes is to sing to make us feel inspired I’ve learned yet one more thing from these incredibly strong women.

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Comments
  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,”…true enough, but it could be better. The women, particularly the low level drug offenders and ones caught up in abusive relationships, could be in therapeutic environments that provide a healthy, healing space to transition back into society. I’m not trying to minimize the impact of the author’s story which is important, just wish we stopped settling for worse instead of better. I’m sure it has nothing to do with which approach, transformative vs. punitive, bolsters the bottom line of profit the most.

    • gaylessaks says:

      Hi Jeff-
      I would say that at least 85% of these women are indeed low-level drug offenders. As I scanned the singers on Friday in this year’s concert, I found myself fixated on the incredibly young faces wondering what they had done to get there. In my group they generally reveal their crimes and all they want is to get clean and never come back. I’m sad to say, that most of them do.

      A lot of them do go on to reentry programs once released but they are so often just lured back to the lives they know despite their best intentions.

      • David Chura says:

        Most times when some young offender left the prison where I worked they expressed a real desire to get out of crime, off the streets and to start leading a life like “other people.” But as Gayle says those best intentions don’t carry them. The government would like us to think that it’s all about moral character, will power, but if you work with people who have been locked up you quickly realize that if the conditions in which they grew up–poor, violent, no health care, unemployment, racist– and into which they were being released don’t change it’s close to impossible to make those changes. Instead we invest in more high tech prisons.

  2. Any time locked away from your children but the holidays magnifies that pain.

    • gaylessaks says:

      Jackie, you are so right. Most of these women’s children are being raised by extended family or have been placed in foster care. Nothing breaks these women down than thinking of their children not only at the holidays but throughout the year.

  3. Michael Belk says:

    David that was a sad, but inspirational story. There are so many kids missing their parents. I feel for them because i can understand the pain of missing a parent.

    i was raised in a single Parent home although my Mother did a wonderful job, I would have appreciated my Father being present.

    • David Chura says:

      I think that if more people could make the kinds of connection you did in your comment between an offender’s life and their own, our justice system would be more humane and so more effective. Thanks for that insight, Michael

  4. David,
    I so enjoy your blog that I nominated it for the Sunshine Award, an award created by bloggers for bloggers. Check out my latest entry for rules!
    Thanks.
    Tomasen

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