Doing time at Christmastime means few special gestures
One of America’s most special holidays was, by and large, just another day for those who spent Christmas behind bars Saturday.At the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs and the Rifle Correctional Center, a few small gestures set the day apart from the rest of the year – but only a few.”We have a pretty good cook who likes to make special stuff for the holidays,” said Scott Dawson, the county jail commander. “There’s really nothing else besides the meal.”There was no gift exchange. The jail allows only a small list of goods to be brought in, and exceptions aren’t made for the holiday. There weren’t even any visitors. The jail allows visitors only on Mondays through Thursdays, when a secretary is on hand to schedule their visits and to check them for any outstanding arrest warrants. No special services were held. Dawson said he doesn’t recall inmates ever asking for anything special for Christmas such as services or different visitation rules.”Maybe inmates just expect that that’s the harsh reality, that’s the way it is,” Dawson said.Bobby Johnson, warden at the Rifle Correctional Center, said one thing the prison teaches its inmates is that when they do time, in a sense their families do time with them. This lesson hits home particularly hard during the holidays.At the minimum-security Rifle facility, Christmas was a bit special in that it fell on a Saturday, which is a visiting day there. But Johnson wasn’t expecting visitation to be high. Many loved ones chose to visit last weekend, so they could spend their Christmas at home and not be forced to give up spending time with the rest of their families, he said.
Johnson hopes that when inmates watch loved ones have to choose how to spend their holidays, it provides yet one more incentive for them to avoid doing anything that would put them back in prison once their terms end.Tony Copeland, volunteer chaplain at the Rifle prison, said spending Christmas behind bars is one of the prices criminals pay for their crimes. But he thinks their holiday deprivations help them focus on behaving so they can get out as soon as possible, and then stay out.The holiday season is a tough time of year for prisoners, Copeland said.”I have more guys that are depressed and struggling in the holiday time than any other time. They get thinking about their families,” he said.Some inmates see family frequently, but others go years without a visit. Some are going through divorce. Some count on being paroled by November or December, only to have their parole requests turned down. The prison does what it can to bring a little Christmas joy to its inmates.Last weekend, Copeland worked with local churches and donors such as City Market and Wal-Mart to put on a Christmas party at the prison gym.About 150 of the prison’s 192 inmates attended.”We had a whole lot of food … as much as they could eat, pretty much,” Johnson said.
City Market donated chocolate bars as gifts this Christmas, and the Salvation Army gave inmates socks.Copeland said about a dozen inmates sang Christmas carols, with some of them playing guitars. He said keeping inmates busy in such ways helps them get through the holidays.No one is forced to go to activities of a religious nature, and the prison also accommodates believers of other religions such as Judaism and Islam when they are at the correctional center, Johnson said.Prisoners enjoyed a redecorated visitor area at the correctional center on Christmas Day.”It’s more or less our effort to keep them in touch with what is going on with the rest of the world,” Johnson said of the prison’s holiday touches.Also on Christmas, the prisons serves a morning brunch and then a holiday dinner, followed by snacks for late in the day. “Generally the guys want to huddle up with their televisions and watch football. These guys can’t go raid a refrigerator, so we give them something to take back to their room,” Johnson said.He said the prison does what it can to show that holidays are special. It’s all part of preparing inmates for life outside prison walls, in hopes that they will adapt and not end up back in prison. For many of the inmates in Rifle, the minimum-security facility is their last stop in the prison system before freedom.As with the county jail, the prison has limits in what it can do to recognize certain holidays. Rules against trading of goods prevent holiday gift-giving. Families can order inmates packaged foods from the canteen operation of the state prison system’s industries division, and also can send money.
The need to control contraband limits what the prison can allow. This time of year, Johnson said, guards do extra searching for prisoners with homemade alcohol.”We’ll be fine the rest of the year and around the holidays they’ve got to have a drink,” he said.Johnson said prisoners make the alcohol, called “jack,” with yeast and fruit.”The stuff will kill you,” he said.He said it also creates “bad drunks” who act crazily.He said “jack” is easy to detect by its nasty smell. The prison hasn’t found any makers of “jack” in recent years.”Generally if we stay on our game nobody does it,” he said.Just as there is no spiked Christmas eggnog at the prison, there is no New Year’s Eve champagne. New Year’s Eve is just another night. As during the rest of the year, the curfew is usually 10 p.m., and lights must be off at 11:30 p.m.”We don’t vary that for any holiday, any reason,” Johnson said. “That’s just a fact of life.”
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There are a few extra stories being shared around the tables at the Village Smithy restaurant in Carbondale this week following the death of restaurant founder and longtime community leader Chris Chacos.