National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

Another Christmas in a prison visiting room

Family gatherings give glimpse of next generation of inmates


Is there any sight more depressing than a prison visiting room at Christmastime? Limp tinsel garlands snake along cinderblock walls and a crudely drawn cardboard snowman dangles from the ceiling. Over in the corner, the same old plastic Christmas tree guards a collection of gaily wrapped “presents,” which are, of course, only for decoration. Every year at least one inmate’s child unwraps one of the “presents” and bursts into tears upon discovering that the box is empty. Last year, this year, next year, next decade -- it happens every Christmas.

Most prisoners have lost all contact with their families, but of those who do get visits, many get only this one, on the third weekend of December. So ex-wives with strained smiles sit across from the losers they divorced years ago and they try to persuade their children to call the stranger on the other side of the table “Daddy.” No modern, street-smart kid will fall for that. “Daddy” is the dude who is sleeping in Mom’s bed this month, not this guy here in the weird orange jumpsuit.

In some ways it is worse if a little boy bonds with his convict father. Then the child puts on the tough-guy strut as he walks into the visiting room and brags to his hero about the lunch money extortion racket in grade school. The harder mothers object to this negative role modeling, the more irresistible the “gangsta” life becomes to youngsters. And when their “Daddy” tells them in the visiting room to be good and do what Momma says, they know he does not really mean it: “If he did, he would hit me, like Mom does when she really means it.”

In my nearly 18 years of incarceration, I have met quite a few inmates whose sons and occasionally even daughters followed them into “the big house.” Most states will not house close relatives in the same facility for security reasons, which avoids the social awkwardness of family Christmases in prison altogether. At least incarcerated parents and children are allowed to send each other holiday greeting cards from institution to institution -- only with the two wardens’ permission, of course.

Meanwhile, back in the visiting room, the future jailbirds of America are saying goodbye to their fathers until next Christmas. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is how happy everyone is that the visit is finally over: The ex-wives can forget this part of their past for another year, the kids can work off their pent-up energy in the prison parking lot and the convicts can leave behind the powerful mixed emotions of seeing their loved ones for so short a time. Back in the cell house, they have to keep their hearts frozen in order to survive. Allowing their feelings to thaw for an hour or two in the visiting room is profoundly disorienting. So they unwrap the little package of Christmas marijuana that their ex-wives smuggled in and get thoroughly blasted.

Roughly 1.5 million children in this country now have a parent in prison, so the scene I describe here is nowhere near as rare as you might think. And speaking of Christmas presents, prison is the gift that keeps on giving: Eighty-five percent of youths in prison grew up in fatherless homes, including 60 percent of rapists and 72 percent of murderers. “They will undoubtedly father children of teenage mothers, whom they will provide neither financial security nor emotional support, further perpetuating the vicious cycle of the aberrant family system,” wrote juvenile psychologist Mark Holmberg in a 1988 study for the Richmond, Va., judicial system.

Federal Bureau of Justice statistics report that 5.6 million adults in the United States either are now or at one time have been behind bars, and that 11.3 percent of all males born in 2001 will go to prison at some point in their lives. Among black men, that figure already stands at a mind-boggling 22 percent, and no change in these trends is in sight. So we can expect ever-increasing numbers of jailhouse Christmases.

What is really tragic is that incarcerating so many people -- and thus creating the “perfect” conditions for producing the next generation of prisoners -- makes absolutely no sense. Between 1970 and 1995, rates for both violent and property crimes in the United States actually remained at almost exactly the same level, but the prison population quadrupled. The risk of becoming a victim of crime in America is comparable to that in 11 other industrialized nations, roughly 24 percent, but this country locks up seven to eight times as many of its citizens as they do. This costs the United States $40 billion per year, with Departments of Correction being the largest, most expensive government agencies in many states.

The Canadian government recently issued a report that finds that “the American incarceration rate is … the highest in the world, but it has not made the United States a safer place to live.” According to a 1990 British government white paper, prison is simply “an expensive way to make bad people worse” -- and, unfortunately, to make those bad people’s sons and daughters worse, too. As you celebrate Christmas with your family at home this year, perhaps you could remember the 1.5 million children whose fathers are behind bars and consider whether another prison Christmas really is the best thing for them or for you.

Jens Söring is a prison inmate in Virginia whose first book, The Way of the Prisoner, has been published by Lantern books.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

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