Before I became incarcerated on August 3, 2010, I never even thought to imagine what a prison holiday was like.
My father had been in and out of prison since before I was conceived. In my young mind, the only thing that mattered was whether my dad would make it home for the holidays or not. We built and kept our bond through the constant communication of letters and drawings (those vivid memories are what helped me build lasting bonds with my own children over the years).
Eleven years later, the holiday season still hasn’t gotten any better, mentally or emotionally. But my first couple of years were the hardest. I wasn’t able to touch my children, hear their laughter, participate in the American ritual of returning gifts after holiday shopping, and most importantly, not being able to make memories over the dinner table. In the South where I am from, that is the heart of the home.
What sticks out to me the most about my holiday seasons in prison is my 2016 Thanksgiving dinner.
Six years after my incarceration, I was at Alto State Prison waiting in my dorm along with everyone else to go to the chow hall.
On the way, tears started to form in my eyes, my throat started tightening like I couldn’t breathe, and all I could think was, “I don’t want to be here, I want to go home to my family!”
I did not want God to think I was being ungrateful, so I walked into the chow hall with my head held as high as I could to eat my not-so-good, unfulfilling meal.
What I didn’t notice until I sat down was the deepness of the silence in the building. You could hear a pin drop. Everywhere I looked there were silent sniffles, and people fighting to eat their meals while trying to hold back tears.
There was truly a quiet storm brewing that day. You would have thought leaving out chow hall would have been a little easier. My breathing felt more constricted, my legs wobbled and I walked with strain. It was not until I was safely back in my two-man cell that I could exhale and cry in silence.
There isn’t a more excruciating pain for a mother than having to leave your children behind. While they felt lonely, abandoned and motherless for the holiday season, I felt shame as well as a restricted, contained void, mentally and emotionally.
Me and my children have been surrounded by love and great caretakers during my entire incarceration. No matter what though, there isn’t a substitution for ME with MY children during the holiday season.
One of my favorite pastimes is making taffy candy and cooking homemade meals.
People might think the food is totally disgusting in prison. It’s true unless you buy and create your own meals. I often tell my children what I eat and they sound so disgusted on the phone. I just laugh.
We have a system where we find one or two people who work in the back of the chow hall, and we put in orders with them for food items like onions, heads of lettuce or cabbage, sugar, liquid or cooked eggs, baked or fried chicken, meat patties, corn, string beans, canned greens, dinner rolls, etc.
Our holiday meals turn out to be almost exactly like home. The only difference is we do not use a stove, we use a flat iron — the same kind you would use to straighten your hair. It might be unbelievable, but they work miracles along with a cooking pouch.
This is not an experience I would want to repeat, but I am grateful for the journey.
I have learned so many of life’s lessons here that I truly value. I had been through so much before my incarceration not truly appreciating the value of life. I took everything for granted.
Upon my release, I will be so grateful for small things like chewing bubblegum, taking my children trick-or-treating, decorating a Christmas tree or watching my children play in the front yard with one another.
I hope I have shed some light on the life I have lived for the past 11 years.
Please appreciate who and what you have because once it is gone, it is too late to value it.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.