Having spent 10 holiday seasons inside the 25-foot walls of San Quentin State Prison, I can assure you that one of the many things that makes life inside a maximum-security penitentiary different and difficult is that the holidays creep up on you so very quickly. For most of the men incarcerated behind the walls--whether they are regular prisoners doing various stretches, lifers, or on death row--the holiday season is emotionally very rough. In December, more than other times of the year, it's not uncommon for people to rub each other's nerves the wrong way. But good things can happen, too.
One particular year, for example, a fellow inmate played Santa Claus for the kids that came into the prison during visiting hours. The men who undertook the Toys for Tots campaign during the holiday season had spent a number of prideful moments putting this program together. This program allowed the men to give the underprivileged visiting kids an opportunity to receive toys, gifts, cards, and candies, among other treats. If not for the Toys for Tots campaign, these children would not have received any type of gifts during that holiday season.
As for the fellow prisoner who was chosen to be Santa Claus that year, he had spent a number of days putting the costume together, making sure that the white beard was smoothed out, and ready for the big day. On the day Christmas came, this proud Santa was out in the visiting room with all of these happy little kids. Imagine the smiles on their faces. What makes this particularly scene unique is that even in a maximum-security prison, the men behind the walls were able to give back and bring joy to a little one. It is a remarkable thing to watch.
Besides Santa, each year many inmates also dress up as elves. This makes Christmas time at San Quentin an especially festive occasion. The inmates who usually walk tough on the yard now wear elf uniforms with tights and red ornaments around their necks. The kids respond to the banter and have such fun playing with the elves. And then there's Santa, who's got candy canes, ornaments, and lots of other stuff to give out. He has gifts that are wrapped, and gifts that are unwrapped. He hands out toys to the excited kids, who climb over each other to get them. Now, I'm not an advocate who says that we should do away with prisons; in fact, some of the most dangerous people in the state California are locked-up behind the walls of San Quentin. But that shouldn't denigrate the feelings that people have during the holiday season. For one day at least, Santa, his helpers and everyone else aren't simply inmates--they're human beings.
Christmas Eve was also a time when some of the inmates bonded around what was on television. The local PBS station would show nothing but a fireplace with a Yuletide log, accompanied by Christmas songs sung by Bing Crosby, Burl Ives or Frank Sinatra. This being the big event of the evening, all the prisoners would lay in their bunks waiting for the log to make its first crackle, at which point the cellblock would erupt with shouting and whooping and hollering. Some of the men even had a pool on the exact time when the first pop would occur. Many of the men bless the Yule log on TV during Christmastime.
San Quentin is more than 150 years old, and many a Christmas has passed through its dank and dusty walls. It's always on the verge of being condemned, but over 6000 prisoners will be spending the holidays there this year. As for me, for the first time in 25 years, I'm out in the community, where I'll be in the embrace of my loved ones, family, and friends. Even though I expect the coming holidays to be much brighter and more cheerful than any I've experienced in a long time, I'll still be thinking of this year's Santa, his elves, and the Yuletide log in the fireplace.
After doing 25 years in the California prison system, JT Gottlieb was recently paroled. He now lives in Los Angeles.