On Unit 3EE, inside New Jersey State Prison, Christmas looked like any day.
No holly and balls of folly decorating the walls, no stockings and candy canes decking the fireplace. And there was definitely no tree with twinkling lights. The only suggestion of Christmas in this joint was the date, the music on the radio and the Christmas movies playing across the channels on TV.
It was these slight reminders though that stoked the Christmas spirit in guys doing time during the most emotional time of the year.
On December 25, when I first woke up, I felt normal. Then I turned on the TV and “A Christmas Story” was on.
I got nostalgic. I missed home and putting up the Christmas tree with Pop Pop. I called home and my nieces and nephews were running around the house opening presents, and I got excited to learn what they received and what’s been cooked. Then my 15 minutes were up. I felt sad because I missed another Christmas with my family.
For Carl Holdren, one of my fellow residents, the movie that transported him was “Dennis the Menace.”
“It brings me back to Christmases spent in my grandparent’s cabin in the Poconos, where we would cut down a tree and at night watch out for wolves,” Carl told me, as I spoke with him through the side of his cell door.
“While watching ‘Dennis the Menace’ I came to learn that Santa Claus was fake,” he said.
He shook his head at the memory. “I was in my grandparent’s room and I could see my three brothers carrying gifts from the attic and putting them under the Christmas tree. And it destroyed me!”
”Being away from my loved ones for 15 Christmases is hard,” Carl said.
But I couldn’t see the actual pain on Carl’s face because he was injected with the Christmas spirit on Christmas day.
“I still get excited a little bit when Christmas comes around,” Carl admitted. “Because most of my memories are of me and my family having fun,” he said.
Carl wished that Santa was real, so “I could ask him for the best legal team for myself, and I would ask him to give my cousin Tamika all of the money in the world.” He beamed like the lights on a Christmas tree.
For Tamaj Lemmon, Christmas was meant to be a heart-warming time with family and friends. “I’m sad when I call home and everybody is together and happy, except me.”
In a sense, Tamaj said he felt like the Grinch.
”It’s difficult since I haven’t been home since 2013,” Tamaj said. “It gets me frustrated.”
I spoke with Tamaj while he ate the prison’s version of a Christmas meal. On his plate was baked chicken, canned string beans, mashed potatoes, a single corn muffin and something that looked like key lime pie.
”When I call home they’re having a feast,” he said. “And I’m eating this.”
Tamaj added that he wished he was home for Christmas, so he could enjoy his mom’s cooking and buy her something special, like a new truck or a Dodge Hellcat.
”If I could wish for one thing this Christmas,” he said, smiling. ”I would ask for my appeal to be granted, because my case goes in front of a judge on January 5, 2022.”
Like Tamaj, many guys wished that they could give gifts. We rely on loved ones for so much support in here and it often feels like we’re always taking, with nothing to give. I’m always asking for things from my little loved ones, like phone calls on my behalf, or to look up information for me. I’ve even told them, “When you are grown, I need you to be a lawyer so you can get me out of here.”
When I call home and speak with them, I always tell them that maybe next year I’ll be able to give them a gift. Then the next year comes around, and it’s the same ol’ words. Now they’re grown up, with all of these Christmases missed. My words haven’t added up.
Does the thought really count when you only have thoughts and no gifts? I hope they understand.
It would be a gift for everyone in here for the phones to work properly, or the J-pay email kiosk to not freeze, and for the prison to clear the count on time, so guys can make it to the yard.
Mike Dose doesn’t like anything that reminds him of Christmas while inside.
”I get very depressed during this time of year,” Mike told me while we walked the yard on December 25. It was raining and unseasonably warm. Nothing about the ”Big Yard” gave the holiday away.
This was Mike’s fifth Christmas in the joint, and he was missing his family. ”It’s a family tradition to spend Christmas at my parent’s house,” he said, ruffling his hair in an attempt to clear his head.
“What saddens me the most is that my family’s tradition ended when I came to prison,” he said. “It’s unfair that my incarcerated status ruined Christmas for my family.”
As we walked, Mike became a bit more joyful as he talked about his memories. “’My favorite memory of Christmas is when I hid all of my sister’s presents,” Mike recalled.
“During one of our traditions, my family sits around the tree while my mom passes out gifts. On this Christmas, my mom handed presents to the entire family twice over, while my sister just sat there looking in anticipation for her first gift.”
Mike laughed. “’The look on her face was well worth the trouble that I got into. I’ll never forget that Christmas.”
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.