Slade is standing in front of his locker, mixing bowl in hand, whipping up a batch of his famous brownies. It's a regular domestic prison scene: Most of us white guys in E Block are planning on getting together on Christmas Eve this week to eat some snacks, and he's trying out a new recipe.
"I think it needs a couple of more Reese's Cups, and maybe four or five oatmeal pies," he says to me. "But I still haven't figured out what else I'm gonna do to them. I was thinking about crushing up some M&M's to make red-and-green toppings, or maybe I'll just make one big snowman brownie. I want to do something to make it feel like Christmas around here."
The truth is, this week at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana, it doesn't feel like the holiday season, and during the three years that I have been locked up in here, it never has.
In this prison, neither staff nor inmates decorate anything. There are no pictures of Santa, no trees with lights, no decorations hanging in the units, not a nativity scene in sight. The Christmas meal—which is part of a national menu and is served in every federal institution—has always been very rushed, with unpleasant staff members pacing back and forth in front of the tables barking orders, demanding that we hurry up, eat, and leave. In all of the other prisons that I have been in—six federal penitentiaries over 18 years—the big meal has always reminded me I'm still a human who can enjoy a holiday, even if I can't enjoy it with the rest of society. Not so in Terre Haute.
But what makes Christmas special in here isn't the lack of decorations or the tense dining environment. Everything for us centers around the "Christmas bags," which are full of ordinary junk food that people on the outside commonly purchase at convenience stores, but are rather exclusive in prison. Not only are these bags the only gifts that we are permitted to receive at Terre Haute, but also the items inside are usually name-brand and can be easily sold, traded, gambled off, or otherwise bartered with. This year they gave out the Christmas bags early—maybe the best thing to happen at the penitentiary this holiday season.
"If you want your shit, then get your fucking asses in your fucking cells so we can pass this shit out!" Those were the words of our unit officer on Wednesday, December 16, shortly before the staff here at FCI Terre Haute began passing out the goods.
My cellmate and I were two of the last people in our unit to receive our bags, and we were astonished, to be honest. They were big this year, and there was some good stuff in them. We opened the bags and counted 27 items in each, all name-brand items you'd never find in jail, as well as some goodies that many of us haven't seen in years.
"Real Kellogg Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks—are you kidding me?" my celly said. "I haven't seen these since the 90s. This is awesome."
Outside of our cell, we heard all of the usual commotion that goes along with the handing out of the Christmas bags:
"I got two honey buns for them Nestle Crunch bars."
"Who wants to put your bag up on a game of chess?"
"I got $20 for a whole bag!" offered a convict named Tank. An inmate everybody called Skittles seemed like he was on a mission to buy every Jolly Rancher in the joint. Others offered drugs for treats. Next door, my neighbor Dixon yelled out that he wanted to trade his hot peanuts for some barbeque peanuts, while his celly wanted to trade his cream cookies for some Oreos. The entire scene reminded me of the floor at the New York Stock Exchange.
Up on the second tier, a guy named Lee who lived in the far back cell said that he wanted to trade two Chick-O-Sticks for one box of Lemonheads, an offer that caught the attention of many.
"Right here, homie," a guy called Block said. "Lemme get that."
"Hell nah," said another inmate named Red as he took off running toward the stairs. "That shit's mine."
Realizing that the stairs were too far away, Block knew that the only way to beat Red was to climb, which is exactly what he did. He leapt up and grabbed the rail of the second tier, pulling himself up to beat his competition to the Christmas Bag bartering table.
Unlike many people in prison, I grew up in a relatively stable, traditional Italian-Catholic home. I have three siblings, 14 aunts and uncles, and 27 first cousins on my mom's side alone. Every Christmas Eve, all of my relatives gather for a traditional Italian feast, where food like octopus, shrimp, linguini, and so much more is sprawled out across several tables. And of course, at the stroke of midnight, the Italian sausage that had been cooked on a barbecue is served. I'll never forget that annual tradition because it meant that soon after it my parents, three sisters, grandparents, and I would return back to our house and open presents.
In prison, though, my memories of Christmases vary from the druggie years at USP Leavenworth to the drunk years at USP Lewisburg to the sober years at FCI Butner and now the ones forming here at Terre Haute. I reflect the most fondly on Butner, a prison that goes all out for the holiday season. Besides hanging decorations in the library, the gym, the infirmary, and the chow hall, a handful of inmates from each unit would volunteer their time to decorate their own housing units, a project that entailed setting up commercial decorations like fake Christmas trees, lights, wreaths, and ornaments. If you have trouble fathoming how people make hooch in jail, you'd be amazed at the decorations inmates can make with some standard arts and crafts supplies.
But even in a nicer prison like Butner, there are reminders everywhere that Christmas in jail is about as real a holiday as the needles on our fake pine trees. I'll never forget the year we had a "town hall meeting" where the Associate Warden wished us a merry Christmas then announced that the winner of a cell-decorating contest was tied between Georgia Tech (my unit) and Clemson unit. The winner would get extra goodie bags. The solution to determine the winner?
"Sing to me," the associate warden said.
All the prisoners kind of just stood there, not really knowing what to do. She replied to the silence with, "Come on guys, where's your Christmas spirit? Sing me a song and you'll all get a free bag of goodies."
Many wanted an extra Christmas bag, but no one did anything.
"I said sing to me!" the associate warden yelled. "Sing to me now!"
She pointed to a Hispanic inmate who could barely speak English. "Start singing! Come on, I said start singing now. Come on, I'll do it with you… Jingle Bells… Jingle Bells… Jingle all the—"
Reluctantly, the guy started singing and others eventually chimed in.
I felt like I was a part of some surreal human rights violation, but at the same time it was so funny I had to hide my face so she wouldn't see me laugh. To top it off, she stood in the middle of the cell unit and started shedding tears, as if getting us to sing made her feel like she had personally rehabilitated us.
Later that day in Butner, we ate a spread that including Cornish hen, mashed potatoes, gravy, greens, rolls, and mixed vegetables. The food service department at this federal prison went beyond the national menu, giving us two kinds of pie and access to an all-you-can-eat vegetable bar that was filled with fresh lettuce, olives, onions, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, raw carrots, vinegar and oil dressing, ranch dressing, and croutons. And as we excited the chow hall, there were inmates and staff members handing us a box of holiday cookies and a bottle of eggnog.
Walking back to our unit on that cool, crisp winter day some odd years ago felt as close to Christmas as it ever will on the inside. I can't expect the same feast at the pen I currently live in, but I got my hands on a couple bags of Famous Amos cookies after the goodie bag trade. Those will pair nicely with Slade's famous brownies.