Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

This article was first published in the blog Three Hots One Cot. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

Like most holidays in prison, Thanksgiving isn’t much to write home about. It’s just another day on the calendar you want to see pass to bring you closer to your release date — albeit one where you get fed decently. 

In the free world, the holiday means family, friends, gratitude and hearty home-cooked food, if you’re lucky. 

For most prisoners, the best you can hope for is a phone call to loved ones and a more satisfying meal than usual from the chow hall. Often, Thanksgiving dinner is the best one you’ll be served all year, and many eagerly look forward to it. Prison kitchens do on that day what they surely could every day if they wanted to — feed the people in their care a real, satisfying meal.

Where I’ve been locked up, there was usually turkey or chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, rolls, pie — a semblance of what you might remember from holidays with family. 

It’s a lot better than the usual slop, and you’ll hear negotiations for days in advance among guys trading or buying trays, or hustling for food items they want more of. “I’ve got sweet potatoes and stuffing for your pie,” people will broadcast as they fish for extra desserts.

I didn’t care about turkey and stuffing this year though. My mind wasn’t on traditional comfort foods, or food at all. 

I got out of prison about a month ago and was wholly unconcerned about not having received an invitation for a holiday dinner. Instead, I was thinking about the people still in prison, trudging to the chow hall for their much-anticipated meal while wondering what their families were doing. 

I was thinking about all the help I’ve been graced with these past weeks, and how much gratitude I owe the world. I was thinking about the fact that I had a safe place to sleep and food in the refrigerator — basic necessities that too many returning citizens have no access to, even in a country as wealthy as ours.

And I was thinking about the ridiculous icing on top of all the grace and good fortune that’s been afforded me this past month: finding exactly the kind of work I’d been hoping for and signing an employment contract just before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

It’s kind of overwhelming, when you’ve wondered if anyone will ever again take a chance on you professionally and see you as a valued contributor, for the universe to respond: “Yes!” And when you’ve wondered if you’ll ever really see yourself that way again, either.

It’s hard to get rid of that prison mentality — that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any moment — and trust positive developments. 

In prison, you develop a kind of traumatized mindset when sudden and unwelcome changes rule your days: lockdowns over trivial matters come at a moment’s notice, interrupting phone calls, food preparation, or showers; schedules are subject to officers’ capricious whims; routines are regularly disrupted by violence or the threat of it. You have no control over anything and that tends to leave a mark.

But this year on Thanksgiving morning, I went downtown early to volunteer for a local charity organizing a holiday 5K. I don’t have money to donate anymore, so I figured I’d give them some of my time. 

The morning’s festivities brought me to D.C.’s Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stunning spot at dawn. The name of the locale wasn’t lost on me. And then as the race participants started showing up, so did the cops. They were just there to provide security for a large crowd event, of course, but I had to tell myself to breathe, not freak out.

I was convinced one of them would walk up to me and say, “Come with me, sir.” That they’d run my image through the secret facial recognition scanners attached to their body cameras and identify me as a felon and arrest me — for what, I have no idea. 

It wasn’t a rational thought. But it was a high-wire act, standing there passing out brochures and selling t-shirts, while trying to reassure myself none of that was actually going to happen. 

As the incomparable Keri Blakinger wrote about in The Marshall Project, “I’d learned to stop discounting worst-case scenarios just because they seemed impossible.”

Once I got a hold of myself, the event was a great time, and it was rewarding to give back a little for all the blessings I’ve received of late. Or even just to access basic social skills that have been buried for years. 

After a while, it felt less alien to be out in the world meeting strangers and interacting with them like a human being. Sure, I had moments questioning whether everyone I met knew I’d just come home from prison. I wondered if they all saw the stigma and the shame written on my face. 

But the only way to get beyond those unfounded fears is just to put myself out there, and not live in my head. To see police officers and learn to not expect to be detained. I wandered around afterward a mostly empty downtown on a day that had turned warm and unseasonably pleasant, taking pictures and enjoying a feeling that I’d just made some kind of progress, on some level.

I also realize that not only am I fortunate to have an amazing support system — I have a good deal of privilege too. 

Because if I had a different skin color and weren’t wearing decent clothes, I might not be able to wander so freely, volunteer for charity events, and reenter the world with minimal friction. I was at the bus stop last week and watched a cop sitting in his warm SUV demand identification from a shivering, shabbily dressed Latino guy standing nearby. 

And I vowed to remember that moment. I didn’t see how the interaction ended, but there’s probably a better than 50/50 chance that guy didn’t spend Thanksgiving as a free man, the way I did yesterday.

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.

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Dan A. Rosen

Daniel Rosen is a writer and justice reform advocate who was incarcerated in Virginia and Washington, D.C. from 2015 to 2021. He currently resides in Washington. He spent 15 years in public service, working for the departments of state and defense on national security issues, and he holds a Master’s degree from Tufts University.