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Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Beyond the barbed wire fences banded with motion sensors, past the guard towers with armed sentries, interlaced between the roving patrols, lies human life. Life that is absent of the ideal, yet life that yearns to be united with its essence. The days are filled with routine, mundane activities, hollow interactions and moments of sheer panic. The walls do not mark the coming of the holidays and conversations are vacant of the topic. The holidays do not exist in this abyss — this is prison.

Dislodged from our brethren in society, deficient of togetherness, devoid of love, our hearts call us to dream bold. Our collective soul cries out for more. We yearn to feel fully human again, if only for a day. We choose to commemorate these sentiments on Thanksgiving.

But many impediments exist along the way: the prison’s heavy rules and regulations that prevent us from having access to certain packaged foods that give us joy, the jaded attitudes of those in a loveless environment, and the lack of cooking equipment. We don’t have the money to pull a celebration off because we only earn cents on the dollar. Still we plan, still we hope. 

This year, someone made an announcement in the dorm, “This year we will do a special dorm-wide Thanksgiving meal.”

The statement was met by a mixture of excited faces and quizzical looks. “To be part of the meal all you have to do is pledge any amount, even a few cents. The money collected will go toward our meal. Those with absolutely no money will still be fed.”

The dorm buzzed. This had never been done before. “Two of us who are fortunate to have financial support from family and friends will match all donations and provide some turkeys for us to eat.”

The logistical planning began. The goal was not to feed 45 individuals, the goal was to provide some ambiance of humanity. The food was just a conduit. 

The attitude of “looking out for number one” bent to the vision of looking out for many. In all my years in prison, I had never seen such cooperation. People volunteered to be chefs and rose at 4 a.m. to start cooking. Those without money contributed their labor by washing all the dishes and pots and pans. 

In addition to being a financial contributor, I was the bookkeeper for all donations. People came to me one-by-one, some proudly stating their contribution amount, others with despondent looks because they could only contribute a few cents. 

“I have been locked up for decades,” one person told me. “All my family and friends are gone. I make 21 cents an hour. Minus my hygiene expenses, I will have 60 cents left. I would like to contribute to that.” 

I shook his hand firmly, looked him in the eye and told him, “That is more than enough, thank you for your generosity. While others, who have, choose not to give, you are giving all you have.”

I hoped this interaction gave him the dignity that all humans deserved. He smiled and walked away while I put his contribution in the book.

I met with the chefs, and we decided on a menu based largely on items we could get from the facility’s commissary. People go to Commissary on different days, and items go out-of-stock daily. Part of my job was to jot down when people went to Commissary, check the out-of-stock list for that day and based on what was left, ask them to purchase items we needed for our menu. I kept track of their donations along the way. 

“Grossman, come to the desk.”

A corrections officer (CO) called me over and said, “I heard about this Thanksgiving meal you all are planning.” 

“Uh oh.” I thought to myself. “He’s going to shut us down.”

There was a long pause as he made intense eye contact with me. I stood frozen, awaiting what he would say next. 

“I want to contribute.” He said.

It was hard to put into words what I felt. Even writing about that moment now, my eyes well with tears. 

Some of the most brutal moments I have seen in prison have been at the hands of correctional officers and now, one decided to put aside the color of a uniform — his blue and mine green — and embrace our shared humanity. I was overwhelmed. I struggled to get the words out. 

“You … you … wa— want to contribute?” I asked. He smiled and said, ”Yeah. Here is some rice, you all need vegetables?”

”Boy, do we …” I say. “It’s been years since I have had broccoli.”

”Well, just let me know,” he said. I have never had or even expected an interaction with a correctional officer like that. It was surreal. 

As the days passed, folks started coming back from Commissary with their food donations and the harvest grew. In prison, people not paying what they owe leads to huge confrontations, many of which turn violent. But this issue never occurred. Every person who pledged to donate came through without needing to be chased down — another prison first for me. 

To cook, we had a stove and a broken microwave. The prior $80 microwave did not last long in a dorm of 45 people; the constant use burned out the motor. I, along with someone else, petitioned to get a new microwave, but it was denied. The facility told us we could not get another microwave until January. 

I spoke with the supervisor of the program I was in and explained that we were trying to create a dorm-wide meal. After a little selling, the supervisor agreed to help us. To get the microwave, the housing sergeant said the dorm had to be immaculate and all cubes in compliance with the facility’s dorm standards.

A few of us checked the cubes daily in the morning to ensure compliance before the sergeant’s morning rounds (which some did not appreciate). Then the news came — victory! Microwave approved.

Thanksgiving arrived and the anticipation built. Many wondered if we could pull this off. 

I went around and told everyone to give me a bowl. Another person marked their last name on the bowl, and the chefs went into action. We had perfectly carved turkey, rice with sausage in a marinated bean sauce, homemade mac and cheese with three different types of cheeses and Hawaiian Punch. Those that were not cooking donated food to others, including delicious homemade desserts.

In the year that I have been in this dorm, I had never seen my dorm mates this motivated and working this well together. It was like watching a beautiful symphony. The food came out so well. The talent that lies in prisons is remarkable. All it took was the right motivation.

One by one, people started receiving their meal, and their eyes illuminated upon seeing the portions. Some had never had a meal like this in their lives. For others, it brought forth memories of a happier prior life that seemed all too distant. 

The air was filled with the aromas of food and the sounds of laughter. We took in the day feeling human again. We knew that once the day ended, the harsh realities of prison awaited us, some for the rest of their lives. 

If only it could be like this more often, more united, sharing in each other’s burdens, but alas it will not — a microcosm of the world in general. But today, every stomach was filled and every story heard; today the fingertips of our collective humanity touched and for that … we are all thankful.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Paul Grossman is a writer incarcerated in New York.