Mike Neubig is a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets online on Zoom on Monday evenings.
I don’t know how I can best communicate this experience.
Although my efforts will fall short, I have to try. So, here it goes.
As a kid, like others, every Christmas season felt like it was supposed to be a magical time where every dream would come true. I would watch all the holiday shows, count down the days until a break from school, lay under the tree watching the lights, and look forward to playing non-stop, all day. I felt as if our house was an isolated world where only I mattered and was to serve me the perfect Christmas. There is no perfection on earth, but kids certainly wish for it on this holiday.
As I got older, the realization sunk in that, although it is a very special day in religious terms, it was just December 25th on the calendar. I tried to fulfill the magical hopes and dreams of my own kids, but the day passed with less wonder as each year rolled by. After all, we are human, so each year human-like events occur that reduce any remaining hope for an out-of-body transformation. Once my own kids were past the age of believing in the magic themselves, it became even more difficult to avoid letting this time pass with minimal fanfare.
It wasn’t until I was fifty-two that events shifted in order to give me a holiday wake-up call. On August 21st of 2020, due to my criminal conviction, a judge sentenced me to spend a week at Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in the county jail. At the time I thought, this reinforces that the magic I always hoped for came from a delusional kid that overestimated any power of a specific day.
I have never been so wrong about anything.
By the time I reported for my third “retreat”, as my family had grown to call it,(not because it was in any way easy, but because we had agreed to use it to help others as I did in church retreats), I was used to the dehumanizing procedures. Waiting to be booked, handcuffed, strip-searched, checked by the nurse, requesting needed meds, changing into “inmate” clothes, and sitting in a small room that was dirtier and smelled worse than any gas station restroom you will ever visit. All in preparation to be transferred to two more pods/cells, before my final twenty-one-man unit for the week.
It was Dec. 21st and I would get out the morning of Dec. 27th. So, I would be detained for the whole week of Christmas. Because we watch TV shows and movies about prison life, people tend to think that everyone is a heartless thug, a degenerate that needs to be removed from society, often violent, and can’t be trusted. Since this was my third stint in county jail, I already knew this wasn’t true. But, I certainly didn’t spend any time fantasizing about anything above a week of misery.
But, after the usual entrance procedures and making it to the final pod/cell, I was surprised at what I first saw. The powers that be at the jail had decided to plan a decorating contest to see which pod could put forth the best effort to transform forty years of peeling walls, cement floors and picnic tables into a construction paper and tape, winter wonderland. The motivation for each cell to engage would be for the top three cells to get pizza or fast food of their choice for dinner. Certainly a delicacy for anyone that has ever tasted the food in a county jail.
By the time I arrived though, the contest was over and my cell had not won one of the top three prizes. Non the less, I was blown away by their efforts. There were the same paper snowflakes we have all cut in elementary school hanging from every part of the ceiling. A makeshift green paper Christmas tree with a brown trunk standing on one of the cement tables while leaning against the wall. But what was most impressive to me was the Santas sleigh and reindeer that sat on the metal TV cabinet. The details of each reindeer, Santa’s body and face, as well as the sleigh and scenery, had to take at least six to eight hours of effort. It was not rudimentary in any form. It had to be completed by a few inmates with extensive art skills that gained joy from putting their talents to work
Activities that create escapes are invaluable amongst the slowest time one ever faces in county jail. The inmates who spent the time doing the decorating know that, in jail, the rules change by the minute. Who knew who would judge the decorating contest and the reward can be taken away in minutes because of one “cellies” negative behavior. Everyone knows any kind of reward in jail is a long shot at best.
In my opinion, the inmates didn’t work hard on the holiday decorations for pizza. They did it because they are the same kid that I once was, hoping to have the pain of life removed and replaced with magic during this one week of the year. It takes a lot more than being incarcerated to remove that from the human spirit. So, creating decorations across a dank, old jail cell held only intrinsic rewards. For me, their efforts were the first of many blessings to come. Much of my time that week was spent looking at the decorations in detail. Appreciating the efforts of those who we often think don’t have anything positive to offer, another reminder of how wrong we are.
My pod/cell was made up of a diverse group of men. By geographic location racial, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. The range in age was eighteen to sixty-five with crimes that were largely due to drug possession or trafficking, breaking and entering, kidnapping, aggravated assault and others that are meant to economically feed their addictions. Therefore, the talk during downtime (which there is a lot of) is about each persons criminal case, their chance of getting out soon, the length of their eventual sentence, and of course, the loved ones and family they miss the most.
The majority of men had children at some age that would spend this holiday without them. Board and card games, as well as bartering for food trades, takes up as much time as possible. A slight bonus, there is a small TV playing, with limited channel options. The guards control the TV during their head-count routine, as the batteries in the remote could be used to smoke by the most “talented” inmates.
Coming in on this holiday week, I thought the TV shows of choice would be the usual sports or crime scene dramas that played eternally throughout the days. At any given time, five to seven of the twenty-one men in the pod/cell would watch a show. So, there was always a lot of room in front of the TV. But this week would prove to be different
As was always the case, the mainstream channels never fail to play old classics like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, or A Year Without a Santa Clause and so forth during this holiday week. 2020 would be no different. A few days before Christmas, around 8 PM, a commercial informed us that two episodes would be broadcast soon. As the shows started and word spread across the cell, at least 15-17 men crowded in front of the TV. More than I had seen for any other viewing event.
It is amazing, no matter where we watch the shows that are so tightly knit to our childhood, we can’t help but regress in our hearts and minds. As I saw the same 1960’s, rudimentarily manufactured characters that always made me happy and hopeful, watching them in county jail didn’t change that.
Closely seated together next to others on the cement picnic table, I looked at the smile on the face of the inmate next to me. This remote stranger and criminal enjoying the same show as I. It occurred to me, I would never have usually “mixed” with this group before. It brought a stirring awareness of equality to mind that would continue through the rest of the week.
Remove the skin color, the place of birth, the socioeconomic status of our parents, and other dividing factors, we are the same kid. None of us planned to be in a county jail at this time of our lives. Missing our families, county the minutes to be free. Yet, here we were, glad to have each other and heart full that together, we might be able to escape in our minds for a few minutes of magic once again. I learned that the human spirit seeks that at any level possible, regardless of the situation.
Due to the grind and routine of a county jail, days undoubtedly go by slowly. I had made it through the majority of the week and could begin to taste how good my release day would feel. As Christmas Eve approached, I had hoped that I could just ignore the family events I would be missing in order to pass time even faster. That is easier said than done.
It was Christmas Eve and I was able to get a few minutes on the pay-phone to talk to my wife and daughters. Which was the moment I had been most dreading since I learned the timing of my sentence. My wife had worked all day and as I had noticed looking out the windows, it was beginning to snow. She would have to drive and pick my daughter up from work, something I would have usually done when the weather was bad. As I got off the phone with them for what would be the last time on this Christmas Eve, I felt like a failure in every area of my life.
Walking across the cell and approaching the mostly frozen over windows, I gazed out at the falling snow and thought about the weight of this moment. Away from my wife and kids on Christmas Eve. That was bad enough, but I also had an additional challenge. One of the largest fears, stemming from my past life events and traumas, was the fear of not feeling safe/secure in my environment. It was something that I had discovered had permeated the majority of my life. It is also something that created an external focus and need for validation that led to the events that brought me here on this night. The lack of security didn’t stem from a threat on my life or violence. But it came from where it always had, fear that I wasn’t capable of relying on the internal strength that I had within myself.
Despite my best efforts to ignore the surroundings and the the voices replaying in my head of my wife and daughters, I had slipped into the lowest emotional level that I had hoped to avoid this week. I felt overwhelmed by sadness so I retreated to my bunk. I fought back the stomach pains and tried to pass time.
Whether it’s Christmas Eve or not, time in jail is one of the slowest humanity has witnessed. This night, time was extra slow and my anxiety was unusually high. My wife and daughters would soon be celebrating the holiday without me. I had always viewed the protection I provided them as contribution to make up for all the other foundational, healthy traits I lacked.
Deep down I knew that a time would come when my shortcomings would catch up to me, everyone would know that I was a fake, an empty vessel outwardly projecting confidence and intelligence with little substance to back it up. On this night it had not only caught up with me, but the family I loved would suffer as well. As I laid back in the rusted metal bunk attempting to ignore the back pain and lack of sleep, I looked around the cell at the activity of the other inmates.
There is no place that creates equality like jail. No matter what race, socioeconomic standing, religion, nationality or family support system… everyone is the same, societies most judged and deserving of whatever we get. After all, we all did something WRONG. So the one good thing was that, on this unexpected night I wasn’t alone. The events to come would not only change my belief in myself, but a belief in the kindness of humanity that I could never imagine.
Doing my best to pull myself from grave hopelessness, it was 8:30 pm and I remembered that an inmate had said that the movie “A Christmas Story” was going to be on TV. I heard a slight ruckus as many of the men were making themselves a viewing space in front of the small TV. When I had entered the pod/cell days earlier, a twenty-something-year-old man, who had told me he had been in and out of prison since he was thirteen for drug addiction, insisted I have the bottom bunk. He had witnessed my difficulties in climbing to the top one and said that he’d never make his dad climb up for the week, so he certainly wasn’t going to let me do it. That was only his first act of kindness to me that week.
Noticing my sadness after my earlier phone call home, the same young man had made me a makeshift chair in front of the TV from a plastic tote. He made me get out of bed and come over in front of the TV. Since the only thing to sit on in the cell is cement picnic tables bolted to the floor, inmates are adept at creating any semblance of comfort that they can. He and a few others had moved their ½ inch thick bed mats onto the cement floor in front of the TV as well, in preparation for the holiday film.
After making sure I was seated comfortably, he approached me and said he had saved a treat for me, a chocolate milk and candy bar. He said he knew it would be a tough night for me. The chocolate milk was given to us at breakfast as the only “treat” that represented any recognition of the Christmas Holiday. So, sacrificing his chocolate milk and nutty bar purchased at commissary was a gift of significant kindness. As with many other times where God speaks/acts through another human to one of us, I experienced an immediate feeling of love with an accompanying mood change.
The extreme sadness of being away from my family lifted due to the recognition of the power of the generous human spirit. There would be no return gift from me to the twenties-something drug addict that had spent most of his life incarcerated. I had nothing to give besides a sincere thanks and recognition of his act. On this holy night, God had spoken through him in the most glorious and unexpected way.
The rest of my Christmas Eve of 2020 was one I will never forget and will always be thankful for. I had never seen the movie The Christmas Story before, yet many of the men around me had. Regardless, near all of the men brought their bed mats in front of the TV. Some had saved treats as well in hope of finding something to celebrate on this day. Throughout the movie, I looked around me in order to look into the eyes of those who I was once afraid of and considered so different than me. Each face represented a different story that started with childhood dreams of Christmas magic, yet culminated with incarceration.
As the snow continued to fall and accumulate outside, the movie brought joy and nostalgia equally around the room. Together we laughed, talked about scenes that reminded us of our own childhood, and for at least a portion of the movie, felt like normal human beings.
One of my favorite parts of Christmas has always been going to bed feeling the satisfaction of giving and receiving the love that accompanies the holiday. What makes it even better, is to do so amongst family and loved ones. On this night, I felt the same. It wasn’t my immediate family I was with, nor anyone I would probably ever see again, but it was one of the greatest lessons and gifts I have ever learned. Humans take care of each other.
I also learned that, not only am I capable of building my own internal security and safety, but that God ALWAYS provides us with what we need in the gravest of situations. More importantly, he uses every person as an instrument to love and serve. From that point forward, I made a pact with myself that I would forever see value in every person, regardless of their background and circumstances. Also, I would open up myself to be the same instrument of love for others regardless of the time, place, or circumstance.
I do not intend for my Christmas story to pale in comparison to those who spend years incarcerated or in much worse circumstances. Instead, I hope that in reading it, others take away the same lesson that I did. The magic of this holiday will always be there, just as we wished as kids. The reason being the magic is God’s love. It never leaves because his people are always there.
Please think of those incarcerated and/or the less fortunate this holiday season. But don’t worry, they will take care of each other as will you and I.