A Christmas Party in Prison

I had my first Christmas in prison.  No, not as an inmate.  In 1998 I was a Bible study volunteer at Webster Correctional Institution, a low security prison for men in Cheshire, CT (since closed).  That year we threw a Christmas party for the 9 inmates in our group.  However, word got around and 50 prisoners came.

On party day hungry men milled around the food tables. I was at the pie station, handed a slicer and told, ”Don’t let that cake server out of your sight for a minute.”  I firmly gripped the handle.

I had never seen anyone eat like that, but I don’t mean piggish or brutish. All were very well behaved.  I mean eating that was so unhealthy and excessive.  The typical styrofoam plate was topped with four chocolate chip cookies, one piece of carrot cake, pecan pie, tortilla chips, and a mound of salsa, missing only a chocolate partridge in a pear tree. My arteries clogged just looking at the sugar intake.

I had arrived at 2:15 p.m. and by 2:20 it was all gone.  What’s the surprise? They’re prisoners and they’re going for the gusto!  Somehow I had envisioned a cocktail party setting (sans the alcohol) where everyone leisurely picked and poked at the food.  Here the men were like little kids, piling on the cookies and pie, thanking us profusely, their mouths filled with carrot cake.

Afterwards, we sang Christmas carols to a scratchy tape.  There we were, tone deaf and braying “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” belting out “The First Noel,” and giving high fives whenever we hit the high C’s in “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”

One inmate, Leon, should have been a professional. When he sang, ”Where You Lead, Lord,” his melodic voice boomed as if he had been trained to sing in a stadium. After he encored with a Lionel Ritchie ballad, it was back to Christmas caroling.

Soon everything was cleaned up (courtesy of the inmates) and it was time to go.

Suddenly David, a young man, held up his hand, ”I’m happy to say I’m getting out next week, and I just want to say that you guys are real nice to give us this party, and I learned a lot here.  I mean you guys don’t know us.  But every week you come when you don’t have to and you care enough to bring all this stuff.  And it’s really taught me something.  A better way to live.  And now I find myself loving people I don’t even know. ”

Smiles, silence, and then a volunteer suggested a final song.  Ideas were thrown out, ”Silent Night!”  “Let There be Love!”  “Under the Boardwalk!”  Then Leon boomed out a title and everyone agreed. In his massively commanding baritone, he led us all in “The Star Spangled Banner.”

And I have never heard more emotion and strength poured  into the ending words, “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” as sung by the incarcerated on that rainy Tuesday before Christmas.

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Suzette Standring

SUZETTE MARTINEZ STANDRING is a nationally syndicated columnist with GateHouse Media. Her two award winning books, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists (2014) and The Art of Column Writing (2008) are used in journalism courses such as Johns Hopkins University. Suzette is a past president of The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the host of It’s All Write With Suzette, a cable TV show about writing. Visit www.readsuzette.com or email suzmar@comcast.net
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Comments

  1. Wow, this was both hilarious and touching! You Rock!!!

  2. Elizabeth Thomas

    Hello Suzette

    This was overlooked in my crowded inbox, but I believe everything happens when it is supposed to happen, scrolling through my emails, I thought AHA! I know there is something I missed, and truly today is a day I needed to hear this story. Uplifting, heartwarming and just feel good, reading how appreciative the men are /were and how touched they were that others took the time to care, sharing it with us, sharing is caring. I can well imagine the bravado from the Star Spangled Banner, after being in prison and the lessons learned, being back in the land of the FREE must indeed be Golden and so is this article. Thank you Suzette for always always sharing stories that not only stir and soothe the soul.

    • Suzette Standring

      Thank you so much. The party was surprising, moving, touching all in one. We often forget that so many in prison are hungry for kindness, and it was just like you, Elizabeth, to see that, too.

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