Thanksgiving in Prison

"I've been thinking about all the 2.2 million people in this country who will spend this Thanksgiving behind bars.  Yes, some of them have done pretty horrible things.  And some of them have been away from their family for years for very good reasons.  But many prisoners, the people we sentence to our darkest places — in fact, over one quarter of them according to The National Review  online — are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. And many of them will be saying their thanks for what they are grateful for; most of it has to do with love.

I have written much and often about how prisoners are not merely their crimes, and that their humanity is what often allows them to transform themselves behind bars whether it be through reading, programs, art, deep epiphanies about themselves and/or remorse.  While on the day of Thanksgiving, no prisoner gets the benefit of home, even the dysfunctional home, many prisons provide a turkey dinner with the usual trimmings.  Maybe not mom's home-made pumpkin pie, but nonetheless, pie.

Thanksgiving is rough on the families who are visiting their loved ones behind bars. Mary Gautier, Louisiana born and Nashville now, kicking around with over five albums, has a song that really hits me when I think of how hard it is for everyone in this constellation, the families and the prisoners.  It's called "Thanksgiving."  You can listen to it here.

"We stood in a long line waiting for the doors to be unlocked
Out in the cold wind, ‘round the razor wire fenced in cellblock
Young mamas with babies, sisters and other kinds of kin
At Tallulah State Prison on Thanksgiving Day, we’re waiting to get in

You gotta get here early, it don’t matter how many miles you drove
They make you wait for hours, jailers always move slow
They run names, check numbers, gravel faced guards they don’t smile
Grammy and me in line, silently waiting single file

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Sometimes love ain’t easy, sometimes love ain’t free

My grammy looks so old now, her hair is soft and white like the snow
Her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes
They make her take her winter coat off then they frisk her again
When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Even though it ain’t easy, even though it ain’t free
Sometimes love ain’t easy, I guess love ain’t free"

Mary isn't alone in thinking about prisoners on Thanksgiving.  A lot of us who have worked behind bars turn our thoughts to those who can't go home.  Jack Cashill, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and producer, shared a letter online from a prisoner.  It doesn't surprise me one bit — the gratefulness expressed.  But I'd say it's a lesson for many of us who complain about the minutia of life (me), and even those of us (me) who are sad on Thanksgiving without our parents to share our joy and sorrow. Most of us need to stop and see how much being in the moment and appreciating what we have is a way to heal our hurts.  Of course, prisoners learn this too.  Here's a snippet of the part of the letter that I like best.  So thanks to Steven Nary who wrote it in Avenal State Prison in California:

"For everyone who has ever come into my life, no matter how long our interaction was or whether it was inside or outside of prison, I am grateful for each moment, which is a gift in itself and a blessing…"

On a day where we think both about what we've lost and what we've found, let's remember those behind bars.

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