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Florida Update From the Inside: Holiday Celebrations, Prison Style

David M. Reutter, Dec. 15, 2020.

The American holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and ends on New Year’s Day. With it comes the anticipation of spending time with family, sharing gifts, and all the trimmings that come with meals that require days or weeks of planning and work. The COVID-19 pandemic may put a damper on the usual celebrations this year, but for prisoners in America’s jails and prisons, it will likely be the same as always.

The holiday season is the toughest patch of doing time. Every day behind the fences of a prison is a reminder of what one has lost, and the holidays heighten that sense of loss. I used to seriously struggle during the holiday season. It typically resulted in falling into depression, and as two of my dirty urine tests show, I often self-medicated to cope or numb myself. Being separated from family in prison during a time when everyone is gathering to spend quality time is not for the weak of mind.

Despite the struggles of the season, prisoners still find ways to make the most of the situation. Volunteers typically put on more programs and seek to bring the joy of the season into the prison environment. They show some love by bringing in cookies, candy, and drinks to go along with the carols. The path to a prisoner’s heart is truly paved by non-chow hall food.

Prisoners also make an effort to spread joy. As the decades of my incarceration have ticked by, I have come to peace about my circumstances and seek to enjoy every day.

Those of us who have reached that place in life attempt to lift others around us up. Again, food is the best traveled path to arriving at that destination.

As I write this, it is less than two weeks before Christmas. Plans are in place for ‘‘cliques’’ or groups of brothers in blue to create huge meals. The concoctions and recipes would amaze those with no experience in taking items found at local gas station store to create a meal that will feed five to 10 people. Despite all my years in prison, rarely does a year pass that I don’t see some new recipe or concoction that a prisoners has spent year upon year to perfect. The ingenuity is astounding, and the appeasement of the taste buds is extremely satisfying.

For Thanksgiving, I watched one group take honey buns, peanut butter, M&Ms, trail mix, milk, and hot cocoas to create a cake that fed half the dorm. It cost them close to $40, but it was gooey delicious.

Another group is planning a Christmas tuna wrap. Ramen noodles, tuna, onions, various types of chips, mayonnaise, and relish will be the filling of a wrap made from saltine crackers smashed and moistened to create the crust.

These types of creations take hours to create. Everywhere you look, another group is cooking its holiday special. There is so much food that the groups that make these mountains of food feel like overstuffed teddy bears. Once they get their fill, the guys who are not included in a group or who do not have money, are told to get their bowls and to help themselves. The teddy bears then lay down or find a seat in the day room to watch TV. Like any well-fed bear, they don’t want to move or be bothered.

Then there is the homemade hooch. For the holiday season, some prisoners have perfected the art of making wine, from anything that will ferment. It is rumored to take 15 days or so to get a batch from start to ripe. Much planning and scheming goes into creating these spirits. This activity is against the rules, but it’s one of those things that will never be stopped. Most prisoners drink just enough to get the edge off.

Random acts of kindness also abound. A bag of coffee, a bottle of shampoo, a pack of cookies, or other canteen item is often passed from a well-to-do prisoner or one who just wants to share his blessings to a prisoner who is without. A sad fact of prison is that there are many prisoners who have no money or family. The holiday season is the hardest for them. I know guys whose whole family died while they have been in prison. It is these guys who are most sought out to bring some joy unto.

Feasts for New Year’s also abound. I live in a program dorm, and we are currently collecting food stuffs to feed the 92 people in the dorm. The wish list is around $500. There will be a chili-based meal and a tuna-based one. Cookies, chips, coffee, and tea will be available. Of course, all of this will revolve around watching football. Everyone will most likely be able to get two bowls full and maybe three for the big eaters.

All of these activities are merely a distraction from the reality of the prison circumstance. Yet it helps us prisoners get by, and there is real joy in breaking bread and sharing the circumstance that our actions placed us within. We don’t often speak of the difficulty of getting through the season because it’s a shared experience — everyone is trying to cope in his own way.

Once 2021 arrives, many prisoners will do like most people in the free world. They will set goals and strive to reach them. Having the holiday season behind is the beginning. Yet for as difficult as the season can be to get through, memories are made.

I recall my first Christmas in jail. We made a Christmas tree out of a black garbage bag that was cut into a triangle and hung from a corner to give it the tree effect. We crafted ornaments with paper and colored pencils. We wrapped boxes to look like gifts. Of course, we chipped in to make a meal. It was the worst time of my life, but also one of the most memorable. We all found the joy that comes with fellowship, which is one of the main purposes of the holiday season. With that came the hope that we could survive our circumstance with a bit of creativity and a positive attitude.

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