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A Holiday Story from Inside

XYZ  Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in  Florida, was no place to spend Christmas, but some of us have, and sometimes even we could see a Christmas miracle.

At the time, I lived in one of the eight “butterfly dorms” on the compound, a dorm with four separate pods extending from a long central hub. From the sky, the dorm was in the shape of a giant butterfly. It was arranged so that the four guards in their brown uniforms in the Plexiglas-enclosed office could watch all four pods from one spot. Each pod had two floors of twenty-four two-man cells, the upper floor lined by a rail-protected walkway and leading to stairs at either end, and with six separate one-man showers, one large television high enough we could not reach it (the guard would come into the pod with the remote to change channels), three rows of benches for television watchers, and two steel picnic tables with seats.

We were the worst of the worst-child molesters, murderers, rapists, armed robbers-nobody got into this prison by jaywalking or cheating on their taxes.

We wore blue shirts and pants, the pants having one white stripe on the outside of each leg. And yet we had our own little society, with friendships and small groups of men. Racism was a storm cloud that hung over our society, but we kept a cautious truce, knowing if anything racial got out of hand, it would result in a brutal riot.

Dusty, a three-hundred-pound white man, was a racist. He used the N-word like it was his personal mantra and ranted about how obnoxious, nosy and uneducated “they” were at every opportunity. And though I thought of myself as a liberal without racist attitudes, even I was sometimes a little nervous around the black men in our dorm. After all, white inmates, were outnumbered three to one in this prison.

Dusty was once a car salesman. Now he made his money by running football tickets, that is, being the bookie for most men’s gambling. The men could figure which of them won by watching the football game on television, and later Dusty would being them their winnings. We were forbidden from having any cash on the compound. Instead we purchased coffee, deodorant, radio batteries, and snacks at the canteen, with a magnetic strip on the bottom of our inmate ID cards. It was almost like a credit card. The ban on real money was meant to prevent gambling, but you could still gamble, betting two packs of tobacco, one pack of factory made cigarettes, or one pack of coffee, all worth three dollars.

Some of us got money from our families. Dusty did not, but he made good money with his gambling hustle. And he fought hard to keep his business running. One time, he was jumped by four men who took his pillow case of canteen items when he was walking on the compound to give some guys their winnings. Dusty went back to his dorm, put four full cans of cola in his other pillow case, and walked the compound, ready to bust the guys who beat and robbed him. They had already checked into protective custody-lockdown – knowing what they faced, Dusty‘s reputation was that solid.

Come Christmas, six of us, all white, were invited to Dusty’s cell for a Christmas Eve party. Dusty did well that year, and he was fronting the snacks, sodas and a little buck-that is, home-made wine-for the occasion. We were going to meet him after eight pm count.

We were counted six times every day. During count time, we were locked in our cells, sitting upright on our racks (unless it was night and we were asleep), while two guards walked past each cell counting the men. If they came up short one inmate, they had to recount, but tonight things went well, so we waited, so they must have quietly approved the sign.

While I waited, looked out my cell door window and saw two of the party goers, Ted and Doc, stepping out of their cells. They approached the wall behind one of the tables and unrolled a large sign, duct taping it to the wall. It read, “Happy Christmas Everybody!” Large rolls of paper and duct tape are contraband, and yet the guards watched through the Plexiglas as they worked, so they must have quietly approved the sign.

Then Dusty came out of his cell, and Ted and Doc helped him move groceries to the table. By the time they were done, the table was covered with bags of freeze dried coffee, cookies, honey buns, potato chips, ramen soup packs, sodas and anything that tasted good from the canteen. Dusty and the others returned to their cells and locked their doors behind them. One minute later, the count was cleared.

I left my cell and joined the other guys on the rail outside Dusty’s cell door. The television played a Christmas special, not our usual fare. We watched as black men came out of their cell, looking at the overflowing picnic table.

“Somebody’s having a party.” “Someone’s going to have a good Christmas.” Damn, I wish my people sent me money like that.” You could tell they were envious, but not angry.

I had no idea why we were up on the rail and the food was down there. Until Dusty cleared his throat and spoke. His voice was loud enough he could drown out the PA system and television without trying.

Guys, that food is for you,” he said. “The guards let me set it up tonight, and since it is Christmas, I wanted to share with everybody in our pod. Take what you want. There’s plenty there. Have a good Christmas tonight.”

Then he led us into his cell, and we tore into the food he set up for us. As we ate and talked and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, I looked at Dusty with new respect. He was not the person I thought. He was just a little better than I thought.

XYZ Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Florida, was no place to spend Christmas, but some of us have, and sometimes even we could see a Christmas miracle.

(The name of the facility was changed but the spirit of the story is real and found in many institutions throughout the state in spite of challenging and often overwhelming conditions.)


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