This will be my fourteenth Christmas behind the wall. Almost a decade and a half without a bunch of presents to wake up to and share with a loving family. Precious moments lost for a foolish act in my early twenties that has cost me the best years of my life.
I have spent Christmas in six different jails and prisons over the course of my incarceration for bank robbery. From the swamps of Louisiana to the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I have gotten to share the joys of Jolly Saint Nick with convicts from all over the world.
Although most of my Christmases have been the same over the course of my journey through the federal penal system but this year will be a new experience for me. This year I’ve be celebrating the brith of baby Jesus in the Special Housing Unit in USP Hazleton. This is the nice way of saying I’ll be spending the best day of the year in the worst hole in the Bureau of Prisons.
I’m in the hole because of an interview I did with Eyad Ismoil, one of the World Trade Center bombers, who’s incarcerated with me at USP Hazleton. While most inmates are waking up to a hot cup of coffee and some remnants of a candy filled bag passed out days earlier my holiday begins when the blinding overhead cell lights kick on at 6 am in the morning. I crawl off the three quarters of an inch piece of foam that serves as a mattress and jump down off the top bunk feeling like an eighty year old man from the sleepless night of tossing and turning on a slab of slightly cushioned metal.
I wash my face, grab a toothbrush that is no longer than my pinkie and dip the rough head into a small ziplock baggie of white tooth powder, yes tooth powder. This foul concoction tastes like a mixture of baking soda and AJAX. Its the closest I’ll come to a white Christmas this year. I sit and stare at the cream colored paint chipped walls while I wait for a breakfast that could come in two minutes or two hours. With any luck the cold tray of bran flakes, peaches and milk will come with a pack of coffee and my day won’t consist of a headache from the lack of caffeine.
After weeks of isolation your imagination kicks in and you create a world that isn’t as depressing as your reality. For me its no different. Once breakfast is gone I’ll lay back in my bunk and star at the tops of the different colored bricks lining the walls. With just a little imagination the areas where the paint has peeled turn into palm trees and I’m back out in Venice Beach where I spent my last Christmas in the feet world.
I lay day dreaming of a life that has long passed me by while convicts on the yard are days into a full blown bloom of the Christmas spirit. This compound wide cheer comes bagged up and hand delivered with a smile to salivating inmates in their annual Christmas bag.
Inside these bags of dreams are everything you wished you’d gotten on Halloween as a kid- miniature candy bars, cookies, chips, pretzels and anything else that will rot you bought from the inside out. This smorgasbord of sugar snacks has hardened cons who have perfect the thousand mile stare grinning from ear to ear.
Dudes will have bought and sold bags months prior to the golden day, Anything in prison that is rare to the compound is the envy of men whose entire life fits into a small locker. So when 1500 Chico Sticks hit the yard its a fucking free for all.
Once the bags are distributed and and the doors open the unit explodes into a casino of madness. Broke convicts without a pot to piss in suddenly become ballers in the dice game that springs up in the corner. Two or three card tables will open up offering everything from Black Jack to Texas Hold ‘Em. All bets and payouts are courtesy of the Federal Government and only cost the inmates another Christmas away from their families.
“Man, you want to know the best Christmas bag I ever got?” Says Waters, a 37 year old Native American from Kansas that has the misfortune of sitting back here in the hole with me over the holidays. “In USP Coleman they gave out bags to everyone in the hole during Christmas. I smashed the whole bag in two days. That shit was better than pussy.”
There’ll be no Christmas bags coming back here for us though. On “Misery Mountain” as its called, you can count on one thing and that is, “You ain’t got nothing coming.”
In a lot of state prison systems your family has the chance to order Christmas packages from select vendors to send into the prison for you. These gourmet gift baskets come stacked with meats, cheeses, coffee’s and chocolates. This gift from home is priceless to those who haven’t seen the streets since the Bush administration.
But in the feds the best your family can do is send some extra money to your account so you can purchase the special Christmas items that add to the commissary during the holiday season. Items such as Chocolate covered peanuts, Hazelnut coffee creamer, and packages of Clams and Oysters. These items are in high demand and usually seen out quick.
When I asked my girlfriend Crystal on the phone about the Christmas she spent inside a women’s medium security prison in New Mexico she related a more humane existence.
“Girls would go around and get wish lists for everybody in the unit. The we’d pass around a hat and pull names for a grab bag.” She says. A penitentiary Secret Santa. There’s no such thing as a gift exchange in the penitentiary. Holiday or not, the only thing we’re swapping in here is Hepatitis C from the dirty needles circulating throughout the prison. In disbelief I asked Crystal how it all went down.
“Recreation passed out trees to all the units that we’d decorate with homemade ornaments and education would give us wrapping paper for the presents. Before lock in on Christmas Eve we’d put our presents under the tree so when we got up in the morning it was like a real Christmas. We’d pass out the gifts to everyone and then we’d go eat the holiday meal together.”
A regular fucking jamboree. This act of communal kindness is a world away from how I’ll be experiencing Christmas and eating my holiday meal. While my extended prison family is sitting around the table enjoying their Cornish Hen, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and pumpkin pie in the chow hall I’ll be served a tray through a slot of my cell door.
Once the C/O’s have left the range my pie will be smashed down into the size of a pancake, stuffed in an envelope and shot under the crack of my metal door. The recipient of this segregation gold will pull it the length of a basketball court with a piece of plastic rope fashioned out of the shower curtain and slide it in under his door crack, saving it for later when he wants to enjoy a Christmas bonanza.
The reason I’m giving up my prized Christmas treat is because I had to barter my pumpkin pie to get a pen to write this piece and to write a letter to my family telling them that I am in the hole for interviewing one of the World Trade Center bombers.
When you enter the hole you’re issued a flex pencil with no tip. This useless instruments a combination of a gold pencil and a rubber band. If you are foolish enough to ask for a a pencil sharpener you will get hit with the butt end of the CO’s miserable joke here on Misery Mountain, “Sharpen it how you sharpen your knife.”
The uselessness of this flex pencil has convicts resorting to kiestering a pen up their ass when they know they are going to isolation in the hopes that they can sell it to some other convict who wants to spend his day writing letters or in my case writing articles during their stay in the hole.
Back here I won’t even be given the opportunity to go outside and stand in the dog cages for an hour on Xmas, what prison officials call recreation in the hole, let alone to call home. The best I can hope for is some mail slid under my door with photos and cards and something to read the day before.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I was supposed to be transferred to a medium security prison in January, thats now up in the air. Almost a decade and a half in prison has taught me that at any movement everything can be take from you. This is part of the life I’ve come to accept and its something that I’ll keep with me forever.
When I do finally get released from this hellish environment I’ll appreciate the times that I can share a holiday or any day for that matter with my family and friends and let them know I love them for enduring this heartbreak with me over the years.
If you liked this check out more of John Broman’s pieces here.