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Greeting the holidays in an age of mass incarceration

Right after Thanksgiving, red and green decorations start popping up all over the place. The ubiquitous security windows with their diamond-pattern wire reinforcements are suddenly framed in sparkly silver tinsel. It’s 1980, and this is my first Christmas in the joint, in an adult lockup. Everyone who knew me before I entered prison has disowned me. I’m too young to fully grasp what that means.

Tony Huber lives up in the big birdbath cell, so called because it was once a shower room. Back in the Seventies, when the race wars raged hot and bloody, many bodies were discovered in these showers, which were not visible from the guard station. They have since been converted into reward cells, offered to the guys with the most seniority on the wing. Relative to every other cell, the big birdbath is huge, with a tile floor and a window twice or three times the size of the regular ones.

A Christmas tree at the Colorado State Penitentiary © Steve Larson/<em>Denver Post</em>/Getty Images

A Christmas tree at the Colorado State Penitentiary © Steve Larson/Denver Post/Getty Images

For the holidays, Tony has all of his Christmas cards taped up on his cell wall. There are several dozen, and they’re carefully arrayed, marching from one corner to the next. All the traditional motifs are on display: the Santas and the elves, the trees and the wreaths, the fancy calligraphy with its exaggerated serifs.

The older lifers, now in their forties or fifties and covered in faded tattoos, have similar displays of holiday cheer. Wreaths appear in cell-door windows, handmade Christmas trees are propped up on desks, loud flecks of color are everywhere and stand out against the institutional tans and pale greens. I notice that some of the guards even have candy canes poking from their uniform shirts.

It’s all new to me. On the walls of my cell, I hang nothing. I receive no cards, nor do I send any out. I pass the time reading Nietzsche and sharpening shanks on the concrete floor. Some nights I do a thousand push-ups trying to dissipate the energy; some nights I lie on my bunk confused, overwhelmed by the life I’ve thrown away.

At some point during the holidays, amid the oddly disconcerting peals of seasonal cheer, I’m talking with Johnny Romines. He’s twenty-two, only three years my senior and easier to relate to than the dinosaurs with decades strung out behind them. “Next month, I’ve got four down and only a couple left,” he tells me, as if he were relating what’s for dinner or what crummy movie will be flickering on the chow-hall wall next weekend. I think: “Four years in the joint? That’s a long fucking time. I can’t imagine doing that much time.”

My first Christmas in prison, and I’m living in a state of idiotic denial. I’ve been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole — I was among the first to receive such a sentence in California. It’s so new that the prison system doesn’t know what to do with me. For want of a better solution, I got sent to Soledad, a traditional gladiator school designed primarily to inculcate young men into the prison way of thinking, into the prison way of conducting oneself. I readily embrace this bleak and oversimplified lifestyle. I’m ready to become one of the legion of living dead inside the miles and miles of chain link that separate what is in here from what is out there.

But what of all those cards?

A year later, it’s Christmas at Folsom State Prison, a vast granite tomb whose guards, with their rifles cradled in their arms, look to have been whisked off the set of Deliverance. I had been thrown out of Soledad, where my youthful lack of fear and my sentence of forever had made me a problem. The moment I arrived at Folsom, I was placed directly into solitary confinement. The administration had explained I was too young to be released into the mainline prison and decided to keep me segregated for almost another year, until I turned twenty-one.

Now I’m finally out of the hole and old enough to legally drink. No matter that I’ve been drinking since I was thirteen — the older guys have decided that I need to get drunk on this special birthday. Out of one of the steel drums that serve as trash cans comes a powerful brew, thick and fruity. I drink lustily, seizing this moment out of time, registering all of it in my memory. An ancient convict with a beat-up guitar, whom everyone calls Cowboy, is summoned to sing “Mama Tried” — a prison classic by Merle Haggard, one of the few country singers who actually served time, as opposed to the many who liked to pretend they did. I have lived out the lyrics to this song since my days in the California Youth Authority: “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.” I should sober up at this chilling line, but I sing it out loud with the raucous chorus of drunken thugs around me.

Under the multicolored roof of One Building, believed to be the largest freestanding cellblock structure in the United States, there are as many as 1,200 inmates crammed into 600 cells, each too small for even one man. Old Folsom has its own cadre of dinosaurs, and these are of the flesh-eating variety, all sharp teeth and slashing claws. I don’t expect to see too many cards taped to the walls here. There is an embrace of nihilism, a ferocious grip on the ropes pulling us all down into the abyss.

Around the second week of December, an enormous tree appears at the top of the cellblock, over the central stairway, decked out in tiny blinking lights and with a brilliant silver star at its apex. It arrives suddenly, as if by magic — the top of the cellblock exists in a separate dimension, like the permanently banned back stairs and the spiderweb of rickety steel spans that seem, from our vantage point in the yard, to pop out of the sides of buildings and disappear again. At night, after the last lockup, when all the cells are secured and the 150-foot-long deadlocks are heaved into place, I can see the reflection of the tree’s lights twinkling in the arched windows.

On Christmas Eve, gifts are distributed to one and all, to the naughty and the naughtier. A paper bag is dropped in front of my cell. My cellmate, Al DeMarco from the San Fernando Valley, tattoo artist extraordinaire, who’s ten years my senior, pulls the goodies in when the guard comes by to crack open the door. Inside we find candy, nuts, cans of soda pop, a couple of oranges, combs and address books from the Salvation Army, and some writing paper and envelopes. At the very bottom is a Christmas card with a picture of a tree on it and a standard holiday greeting inside.

Al tosses the card onto the small metal locker that sits at the end of the bottom bunk. It’s the only card that will enter this cage. I make a ceremonious attempt to stand it upright on the locker near the iron bars that front our home, but it keeps falling every time people walk by, blown down by their wake. It ends up on top of the locker at the foot of the bed and stays there until after New Year’s Day.

In 1985, at the start of the greatest crime crackdown and prison expansion in U.S. history, California built its first new maximum-security facility, up in the Tehachapi Mountains, the spine of rock and forest due north of Los Angeles that stymied the railroad barons for several years. The bus ride to the place follows some of the old switchbacks before pulling up to the low buildings. With their long, uninterrupted horizontal lines, they have a denuded quality; all barren functionality and no charm.

I arrive that same year, just before Halloween, a holiday that has yet to come into its own in mid-1980s prison culture. The weather is unsettled, alternating between hot and windy and cold and windy. The joke on the yard is that this is the land of four seasons, all in one day.

I’ve come to Tehachapi in pursuit of the one thing I could never buy on the tier back at Old Folsom. In the depths of my isolation and self-imposed banishment, a woman has come into my life and brought love to me in a way that transcends everything else I’ve ever known. I met her through the happy accident of a random phone call from deep inside the supermax unit of the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail. In the course of taking down a message for my lawyer, a receptionist with a strong, musical voice wondered about my situation.

Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Left: “Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois.” Right: “Michael Armstrong, Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix, New Jersey.” Both by photographers unknown and collected in Prison Landscapes, by Alyse Emdur. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

“What’s jail like?” she asked ingenuously.

I gave her one of my well-rehearsed stoic responses and hung up. But when the echo of her voice wouldn’t leave me alone, I had to call back. I described the encounter to the less evocative voice that answered, and the reply was: “That must be Anita.”

At Tehachapi I’m out in the visiting room with Anita every weekend, and as the holidays approach, I assume the decorations will go up, the candy canes will appear on the tables, the tree will be erected in a corner. But nothing of the sort ever happens, not even in the visiting room, the one place where the bleakest of prisons usually allows the season to seep in.

At the old places, there was a tacit agreement between the guards and the prisoners. Whatever I could sneak into my cell short of a gun or explosives was mine to keep: ovens, toasters, fish tanks stocked with all the exuberance of the tropics. But in this architectural nightmare, this cathedral of isolation, there is no such agreement, tacit or otherwise. Cells are ransacked constantly, and nothing attracts the attention of a new guard more, nor raises his ire more effectively, than personalization. Anyone who makes the mistake of displaying Christmas cards on the walls of his cell will return from the yard to discover them torn in half, strewn about the floor, or floating in the toilet.

I don’t, of course, have some sort of divine right to a free man’s Christmas. Not long after my nineteenth birthday, after a long night of heavy drinking and hard drugs and a couple of bloody brawls, I killed a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a fistfight that he never stood any chance of winning.

By that time I had already been hardened inside Los Angeles County’s notorious juvenile halls, one of the tens of thousands of broken and discarded boys and girls cast down into Mother California’s youth prisons. I had aged out of the system and was wholly incapable of functioning without some kind of restraint, mechanical or otherwise. I knew too well the pain of loss and separation. The world on the other side of the fences seemed more alien to me than the world of brutes and brute force I had become accustomed to, had become a part of, and which lived inside me wherever I went.

Still, I am not an innocent. I did kill another man without any rational justification. The fault is all mine.

The holiday fast approaches and nothing in the nature of an official acknowledgment from the Tehachapi administration is forthcoming. No trees, no tinsel, nothing. The meaning of this irrational hostility becomes apparent late at night on Christmas Eve, when the third watch switches out with the first. The administration has installed a state-of-the-art public-address system with metal speakers bolted up into the corners of each section. Now a booming voice crackles out at us: “Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.” The speaker goes on ranting about how happy he is that all of us will be suffering while he’s celebrating. When he finally runs out of spleen, he finishes with a hearty “Merry fucking Christmas!”

We all recognize his voice. We know who he is — a huge slab of a man with unfortunate misshapen features and an aura of violence about him — and nobody is surprised. And while he isn’t bright enough to articulate it with any finesse, he is accurately aping the new philosophy of corrections that is taking over American prisons. It’s a more aggressive approach to crime and criminals that holds rehabilitation to be both pointless and fruitless. At this juncture in history it’s mostly an attitude, not a working mandate, but it will eventually imprison numbers so vast as to be unthinkable. All it means for now is that our own culpability for being in this place will be driven home to us every moment of every day, especially on holidays.

Merry fucking Christmas, indeed.

It’s 1995, and I have been at Tehachapi for more than a decade. It’s my eleventh Christmas in the mountains, and nothing has changed. There won’t be trees or lights or any of that, not here, not in the state’s securest mainline facility. That last bit is the propaganda of the institution, but we all know it’s bogus. The truth is a bit less stark. Not long ago, one guy donned a guard’s uniform and literally walked out the front door. And the “worst of the worst,” as the corrections department likes to put it, have been shipped off to the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison, which opened in 1989. But Tehachapi is still as hostile and denuded a location as it was on the day that I arrived.

On the other hand, I’ve changed. I’ve been clean and sober for years. I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore. More important, I no longer carry around the old hatreds. And my lovely wife is pregnant with a girl.

Back at Folsom, the canteen sold candy canes and chocolate-covered cherries during the month of December. It was a tradition that stretched back to the days of Machine Gun Kelly. Even better, you could get eggnog.

I decide to push for the canteen here at Tehachapi to sell that quintessential holiday beverage. I send a Request for Interview form (prisons love forms) to the canteen manager, asking him to sell eggnog in December only. I never get a response. Weeks go by before I see him walking across the yard. When I ask about my request, he tells me it’s impossible.

“What would the victims think?” he asks me.

“I don’t know,” I reply.

This is the first time I’m confronted directly by the prison-industrial complex’s self-defined rationale and all-purpose excuse. It’s a mantra that will be repeated over and over until it becomes the central pillar upon which the edifice of endless punishment is constructed. It informs the thought process of the prison doctors who refuse to actually treat patients in need, of the prison teachers who refuse to actually teach their students, of the guards who shoot to death prisoners engaged in simple fistfights.

My pregnant wife poses a tricky moral dilemma for these people. She’s always been easy to vilify for her obviously improper consorting with the likes of me, and on account of that alone, she’s been mistreated and disrespected for years.

She has never hung her head. She always stands up for herself and, more to the point, for me. She wills me to be a better man with the ferocious power of her love, which becomes a shield that repels the ugliest of them. I know it costs her dearly, and I’m aware of how much she’s depleting herself to rebuild me.

But what of the life she carries within her? For years, I’ve observed the miserable plight of my fellow prisoners’ children. It’s never failed to cause me great discomfort. Yet I’ve somehow become a magnet to these kids, who spend too much of their visiting time talking with me at our table. I suppose they come around because it’s obvious how much Anita and I love each other, or because we’re both young and laugh out loud.

At Christmas, the indignities of the visiting process are magnified. I know my child will be forced to endure all this, and there is nothing I can do about that ugly truth. The thought of it sends a chill through me. I promise to always watch my little girl’s pirouettes and wobbly toe touches every time she asks.

It’s Christmas Day again. When my wife leaves the visiting room, she’s heavy with child. Later that night, at about three in the morning, I’m notified that she’s at the hospital in labor.

Best Christmas ever.

Hardest Christmas ever.

At the California State Prison in Lancaster, we’re approaching the new millennium, and panic about the dreaded Y2K computer meltdown has descended on the place. Prisons, of course, exist in a state of constant paranoia, regardless of whether the threats are real or imagined. Every day on the yard, as we get closer to the holidays and the momentous turn of the clocks, the conversations keep edging toward the abyss of irrationality. What if the power goes out? What if the water turns off? This is a possibility, according to alleged experts on the local news, who advise their listeners to keep a three-day supply on hand. But we assume we’ll all die of thirst. No one’s coming to save us.

Hoarding food has become widespread, particularly those items that stand a chance of lasting a while if the power fails. I’m storing granola bars and bags of nuts under my bunk. I figure I’ll be able to last long enough to dig my way out if society collapses on the other side of the fences. I smuggle a couple of five-gallon buckets into my cell. I’m currently without a bunkmate, so I calculate that ten gallons of water should hold me for more than a week, enough time to make my escape.

The sense of doom pervades every level of the prison. (It doesn’t help that the governor’s recent advice to lifers, at least as it was summarized by one official, is to expect “parole in a pine box.”) And there is a new iteration of the oldest, most unsettling rumor of all: it is held as a certainty by most prisoners in California that in a time of civil catastrophe, the guards will be detailed to execute all of us in the name of public safety. According to the rumor, teams of guards at every prison are now practicing, just in case this liquidation needs to be carried out.

When I wake up on January 1, 2000, the power is still on, the water is still running in the sink, and the fabric of society has managed to hold together. I quietly pour out my ten gallons of water. No one discusses the events of the past month. Prisoners don’t like to admit to feelings of fear.

Which isn’t to say that the new millennium is a walk in the park. By the end of 2000, the entire prison system looks to be coming apart, from the revolving-door leadership of the Department of Corrections in Sacramento to the spate of deadly riots throughout the state. The holidays approach once again. And after years of shrinking — from a full shopping bag of useful items and tasty treats to a small bag of unsalted nuts and broken pieces of candy — the annual present is ended.

On the outside this may seem inconsequential. Yet it’s an inevitable result of the relentless campaign to dehumanize men and women in prison. It’s not a uniquely Californian phenomenon: all across the country, the short-lived reformist impulses of earlier decades are being discarded in favor of a new philosophy of punishment, built on inflicting pain for its own sake. Rarely is this truth even alluded to when we ask about what has happened to the holidays. “We can’t put up any decorations because someone might be offended.” This is one of the most popular excuses, although no one can cite a single instance of offense taken. “The costs are prohibitive.” Which is absurd, since the gift-bag items were mostly donated, and it doesn’t cost a penny to leave the yard open an extra hour or offer eggnog for sale in the canteen.

We are all aware what is really going on with the cancellation of Christmas. It’s a part of the cancellation of our membership in the family of man.

The denial of the holidays, along with the rest of the screw-you policies, has unleashed within prisoners a kind of fury that is difficult to contain, hard to direct, and impossible to predict. In the past year, on this yard alone, there have already been two skirmishes that each involved dozens of combatants, several stabbings, and one full-scale riot of more than a hundred men, who inundated the guards in a way I’d never experienced in all my twenty years in prison.

I don’t get visits on Christmas Day anymore, either. During the many years that my wife came, telling me she couldn’t stand the thought of me being alone on a holiday, I felt blessed. These days, she can’t stand the idea of spending a holiday in a prison visiting room. She is not to blame. She fought as hard as anyone could, harder than I could. But the darkness of these places has now succeeded in repelling her too.

And yet we are human, whatever the propaganda may say. Our hearts still beat, and the spirit lives on in every breath we take. Under the radar, one glimpses something of that spirit here and there. A few friends who live on the same tier put together the fixings for a nice meal they share on Christmas Eve. Some of the more religious guys defy the ban on “grouping” to stand together on the yard and sing a carol or two before the guards order them to break it up.

Thirty-two Christmases in prison don’t leave much room to be surprised, but 2011 brings two new experiences. Several years ago, in response to the world’s abandonment of prisoners, a few of the guys with their own resources pooled money together and purchased enough goodies to give every man in our building a little gift bag on Christmas Eve. I’m sure no one but a prisoner could have understood the deeper significance of that bag of broken candy or the profoundly dispiriting nature of its loss. I asked those involved if I could contribute to the fund this year. That would be the extent of my participation, I assumed — my ten bags of chocolate-chip cookies from the canteen added to the pot.

But here it is, Christmas Eve, and I’m making my way down the tier, putting individually wrapped bags on cell doors, one of Santa’s helpers in blue chambray, deep in the joint. This would have been more than enough to make a memorable holiday. A week ago, however, I did something even more personally astonishing.

To be clear, I’m a loud man. Of this I am fully aware, as is everyone around me. Men who live down the tier say they can hear my laugh inside their cells while they’re wearing headphones. Others have told me they can understand every word of my conversations on the dayroom phone from twenty yards away in the showers.

I had asked one of the religious guys if they would be singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in their upcoming Christmas service. I’ve always loved its dark, admonitory tone, and can’t think of a carol more suitable for a men’s prison.

“I don’t know,” he tells me. “Sing some of it.”

For some reason I do, loudly and, stranger still, well.

“Would you sing that at the service?”

“Yes, I will.” No one is more surprised by this response than I am.

The room where I will be making my singing debut is officially designated as the Main Sanctuary. It’s a term rich in symbolism that I’m sure is lost on the authorities: in ancient times, sanctuaries provided asylum, which made a fugitive immune from arrest. The room is large, about twenty feet by twenty feet, with a stage raised about six inches off the floor down in front, like a sawed-off pulpit. The walls are bare and painted in the same institutional off-white as every other room at this prison. There are about forty-five individual chairs upholstered in a rough burgundy cloth and, in the corner, a large wooden box that contains a baptismal bathtub. The ceiling is white, water-stained acoustic tile. All in all, it’s a remarkably unremarkable space for a sanctuary.

On this day, however, there is a riot of holiday colors and ornaments, much of it donated by the old Irish priest, some of it pilfered from the occasional staff celebrations to which we are never invited, and a few pieces the products of our own ingenuity and great longing to see Christmas in our own world. Long streamers of golden tinsel cascade across the walls. At the front, framed in imitation ivy, are several poinsettias with exceptionally lifelike red leaves.

The most touching decorations, though, are the simplest: three small boxes made out of paper, about three inches square. They sit atop the baptismal box. On one the word faith is written in small, childlike letters. On another is hope, and on the last, in slightly larger letters, love. These are what we’ve all crowded into this room for, into what is the modern equivalent of the medieval narthex, the place for those deemed unworthy to sit with the good people in the regular pews. And it is love, written with a bit more emphasis, that we all long for most. Without love, as the Apostle Paul warned, we are but a “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”

So I sing in a room full of my fellow prisoners, decorated with our longings, to louder applause than I could have ever expected. My performance is a success. I am not a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal, but a most imperfect vessel delivering the tidings of joy.

I was asked by the religious men to sing the same carol again this year. This is now part of my contribution to the holiday. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” dates at least to the sixteenth century and was first published in the late seventeenth century, when crime in the crowded streets was rampant, when the hanged bodies of pickpockets were left rotting on display in London as warnings.

The treatment of criminals has certainly made great strides since “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” was written. There’s still a long way to go, though. The belief that harsh treatment and poor conditions will deter criminality continues to hold sway among a substantial number of people. The failure of this approach has been obvious for centuries — since the day when teams of pickpockets worked the crowds who were watching the hangings of their cohorts. The era of mass incarceration ought to be over. It is not.

I’m often asked what I want for Christmas. People tend to send books and music. I get cards, and I send cards. I hang up some decorations and try to enjoy the holiday-themed entertainment, what there is of it. I plan for the inevitable lockdowns, so that I’ll have something useful and diverting to do for the day. I remember the times when I was in the visiting room with Anita and my daughter, Alia, without bitterness. I try, to the best of my abilities, to have as normal an experience as possible.

What I really want, of course, I can’t have. I want to stay up late on Christmas Eve, arranging my daughter’s presents on the same old chair for both of us to enjoy, just as my father did for me. I want to attend a family gathering and share a meal with the people I’ve been estranged from for more than three decades. I want to breathe the air of a free man. I want, most of all, for the atrocious mistakes of my past to vanish so that I can wake up in a cold sweat next to my wife in our bed, thanking God that all this was but a horrible nightmare of Christmases that never happened — that the life I lead is a good and worthy one after all.

But because these are all far too much to ask for, and because I know that, I wish only for another reasonably good performance singing that old carol. I pray that my voice doesn’t quake too loudly or waver, and that my eyes don’t water up too obviously when I sing the words “To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”

is the author of Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.

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