Thanksgiving. All historical debates and political rhetoric aside, the name of the holiday declares the sentiment of the fourth Thursday in November. It is a day to give thanks. We give thanks for the bounty the year has provided. We give thanks for the fruits of our labors. It is a day best shared with family and friends. A day to cook and break bread.
This year my parents will be flying to California for Thanksgiving to visit my brother, sister-in-law and my two-year-old niece. I will be celebrating my fifth Thanksgiving in prison. In these five years, other than some photos, I’ve not seen anyone in my family and they have not seen me.
One other tidbit about Thanksgiving, particular to me. Every seven years my birthday falls directly on Thanksgiving day. This year is not that seventh year. Instead, I turn 47 on the day before Thanksgiving. Still, it adds some extra weight to the week.
It would seem that Thanksgiving in prison is not exactly a special day. Holidays are much harder than other days in prison. We will be served a turkey dinner with gravy and mashed potatoes. It is also likely our other two meals that day will be reduced to cheese sandwiches in brown paper bags. That is par for the course at Pocahontas State Corrections Center.
The inmates are likely to cook meals from commissary foods and some will no doubt do something beyond the usual wraps or pizza jailhouse cuisine. All the while the decibel level in the day room will reach deafening heights over some football game. Not really a special day but not so very different from what tens of millions of Americans will be doing outside these walls.
This year I expect most people will have a greater sense of gratitude, as opposed to this time a year ago. One year ago, we were a week away from a full lockdown, asymptomatic infections and numerous COVID-19 cases. We were glad to get a shower and a phone call, 10 minutes each, in the same day. Last year we were thankful for each day when we called home and were told that those we loved were healthy and alive.
“One day at a time” took on a whole new and often desperate sense of meaning. In prison this phrase is gospel because at any time things can go wrong. What the pandemic did to the world is a microcosm of daily prison life. I really think there will be a deep gratitude this year.
That gratitude will extend a good number of reforms and recent law changes here in Virginia that take effect in January and July 2022. Inmates who had been denied their right to appeal, will have the opportunity to do so as of January 1. Inmates who were once counting years will find themselves counting months, weeks, days or even going home. If Democrats keep this state blue more reforms and releases will be anticipated and expected. That is a whole lot to be thankful for.
The right to appeal law that starts in January is what I am currently looking forward to and also thankful for. After Thanksgiving I will probably find myself quite busy aiding other inmates with preparing their appeals, even as I prepare my own. I do a good amount of legal work for other inmates, from simple letters to detailed briefs, so I expect to find myself filing a lot of appeals after Thanksgiving. Busy days help pass the time. Helping people helps me remember that I am human, and if just one inmate wins an appeal it is a victory. Even though I’m living vicariously through someone else’s win.
I am blessed and thankful to have a son who, at age 21, has moved into my home and is working diligently to pay the monthly mortgage after five hard years without his father. All the while, he is looking to discover who he is in an increasingly confusing and volatile world.
I am thankful for parents who adopted me at 10 days old and from the very beginning stood by my side. Diagnosed with mental health issues, and all but blind in one eye around age five, I can promise you that their lives were not made easier by my presence and later by my disappearance.
For these past five years they have helped me fight my case. For five years they have answered the phone, every day, sometimes several times a day, even when they knew it would be 20 more minutes of ranting. For five years they have supported someone they love, unconditionally, who is suffering and in pain.
Grateful I am for my brother and sister-in-law who have endlessly supported my efforts. They have worked tirelessly to help me see logic, to focus, playing devil’s advocate where ideas needed challenging. They have praised my resilience and damned my lashing out. Always it has been with my liberty and well-being in their hearts.
I am thankful for the numerous friends who send me a card, or who accept a call just to let me know I haven’t been forgotten. Thankful for every person who has helped me to track down information. For every book or magazine subscription someone has sent me. For every time an activist or advocate group has found something I’ve written worth reprinting or sharing. I am thankful I have a voice, that I have found a way to amplify that voice, and for every person who has given of their time to listen to my voice, to my words and my story.
People say it is important to have hope and faith. I think that the same might and should apply to being thankful. You don’t need something to be thankful for, you can just be thankful. Look at the stars, the sky, a patch of dirt or a concrete wall and say “thank you.” It makes no difference who or what you believe in, whether it is the universe, God, Jah, Christ, Krishna or Buddha. You need to say two simple words.
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.