Christmas comes in a clump at prison. Somewhere just after Thanksgiving comes the realization that a guy is going to be spending Christmas in prison--and not just any prison--in this receiving prison, which means he's going to be waiting. He's in limbo, not on a bus to his permanent institution, but stuck, through Christmas and maybe New Year's.
It's cold and wet. That means access to the phones in the yard are limited. At the line of ten phones, at least three men stand with their coats over their heads, trying to block the rain or create a little private room. The gym is a noisy place to try to talk to someone you love or if you need a little privacy. Coats don't work there.
More mail is coming in, Christmas cards by the dozens. But if your name is never called, there's not much room for joy.
On December 23rd, we celebrated Christmas at all the Catholic and Protestant services. Advent just seemed to slip by this year. Fr. Joe came in to celebrate Mass with the first group of Catholics. He's been a priest for 50 years and seems to love his time with offenders as much as he ever loved working in the parishes. His gentle presence made it possible for several men to celebrate First Eucharist.
The Christmas manger scene was front and center and in the after-Mass hubbub, I could hear last year's story of Jesus being stolen. Several people checked to see that he was actually super-glued to the manger. He was.
A man in Canada who makes crosses for us surprised us with wooden ornaments this year. There were just enough for everyone in the room. And just enough to spark a phone call from one of the sergeants: "These things you gave out at Catholic services this morning, are they supposed to be worn?" "Not unless the guy has turned into a Christmas tree." "Gotcha."
Sunday evening was the fourth and final performance of an original Christmas production written and performed by the offenders. Life on the street took on a new meaning and I think at least a few in the room must have had a girlfriend who might have said, "How can this happen to me? Ain't no one touch MY goodies!"
The props were inventive, the singing tender, the joy palpable.
Then everyone went home.
I was ready to leave when the building officer told me that there was a man in the mental health unit who was threatening suicide and wanted to talk to a chaplain. I went to the infirmary.
He was in a stark room, a plastic mattress on the floor, a blanket, and wearing what can only be kindly described as a blue muu-muu. He got up to greet me and I complimented him on his outfit. He almost smiled. Then he sat down on the mattress and I settled down on the floor. He talked and cried for the next half hour.
His father had died the Tuesday before and his family hadn't wanted to tell him. When he had called home on Tuesday, they just said that Dad was at the store and couldn't talk. When he finally found out about his father on Saturday, he came apart at the seams. He is the youngest of eight. The family was trying to protect him. They were worried about him, worried that he might try to do something to hurt himself. And that's why he's here in this barren room with nothing to throw or smash, nothing that could hurt him unless he bashed his head against the wall.
He wanted to go to the funeral home for the visitation on Thursday and we talked a bit about what the mental health people would need to see so they could okay his going out. He understood.
Monday I had a phone call from Mental Health. They were sending him back to his regular unit. It looked like the funeral trip would happen.
When I left the prison Sunday night, the candy cane's sweetness had already faded and the bittersweet reality of Christmas in prison stayed with me.
Even here, in this place, God's promise to be with us stands.