By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Christmas and New Year’s in prison is a stressful time for most inmates because it is on these holidays that they miss their families the most. Feelings of frustration, stress, depression, and isolation are much more intensified, and the reality of the length of their sentence cannot be momentarily ignored as it might at other times.
Visits from family at Christmas time are a double edged sword; although it is always nice to see family, and for a few hours avoid the peripheral view of the normal prison fixtures of cell doors, bars etc., and an opportunity to eat food from the vending machines in the visiting room which is generally somewhat better than is routinely offered at mess, the intensity of feeling conjured by the seeing of family can be seen on the faces of inmates when the time to depart comes all too quickly, followed by an immediate reminder of one’s captivity as they are strip searched before re-entering their cell.
Of course, most inmates are not getting visits, often due to the fact that the Department of Corrections has the habit of incarcerating inmates from the downstate area in the rural parts of the state, and vice versa, thus rendering visits a hardship on friends and family due to the length and expense of the trip. Over time these two factors invariably become insurmountable obstacles to frequent visits.
Those who still retained some contact with friends or family often tried to call them on holidays, but because there are never enough phones to accommodate the overflow of callers, it is hard to get to a phone, not to mention the additional wrinkle created by cell phones, which cannot be called collect. Thus pre-arrangements have to be made to ensure that the call is answered, or run the risk that the person one is trying to reach is might not be at home.
The impact of missing families in places other than the visiting room were handled differently by inmates: some people had hard looks of frustration on their faces, while others kept a more lighthearted and even humorous attitude in order to mask their feelings.
Christmas lunch in New York State Prison most often involves a slice of processed turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, and a small piece of pie. Of course, that sounds a whole lot better than it usually is: the processed turkey seldom tastes good, the instant potatoes are always like paste, and the stuffing is generally so salty that most inmates pass on it.
And Christmas dinner is generally worse, consisting of two slices of cold cuts—usually bologna, two pieces of cheese, a surplus hot dog bun rather than bread, one packet of mayo and mustard, a .25 cent size bag of potato chips (mostly air), and a saucer size container’s worth of canned fruit, usually one fourth of a peach.
In the early nineties the Department Of Corrections was still distributing candy bars to inmates at Christmas. Of course, all of that ended with the inauguration of George Pataki. On Christmas morning, the civilian staff would come around early and sing Christmas carols for a few minutes in each cell block. Some inmates enjoyed it, while others showed their displeasure by yelling insults and obscenities. Despite such reactions, the civilian staff would go on singing till they were finished.
New Year’s was something different. again, with the coming of Pataki, as in the mid-nineties the administration permitted the correction officers to shut the plant down early so that they could party—while depriving inmates of evening recreation, causing unnecessary resentment.
There were a few rituals peculiar to celebrating New Year’s. Beginning in 1998, Elmira began a program already in existence in several other prisons, a program to be sure that financially benefited the state. Prisoners were allowed to purchase televisions for in-cell use under an arrangement, to be sure, that was under the spartan rules of then-Governor George Pataki, and so some watched the ball in New York’s Time square drop on T.V. In an effort to replicate the drinking that takes place on the outside, and perhaps to blunt the pain, some inmates would smoke marijuana obtained via smuggling from the visiting room or, in some rarer instances, through rogue prison staff, while an even smaller percentage would make “hooch,” which was prison slang for wine, made by mixing juice with a lot of sugar and letting it ferment for a few days.
When the ball began to drop in Times Square, inmates would vent their frustration by screaming as loud as they could while shaking the cell door rapidly; some went to extremes, igniting roles of toilet paper and throw it on the tier.
My personal experiences:
I had lost contact with my friends before I made it to prison, shortly after I had been arrested due to prejudicial pre-trial publicity. My already sporadic interaction with my extended family was further curtailed by my incarceration in a prison about 4 1⁄2 hours away. There weren’t very many people for me to call or visit with. Mom usually didn’t visit on holidays due to family get togethers. When she did, I felt the immediate loss as she left. On many Christmases despite trying, I could not get to a phone. After a while, I ceased trying to.
Sometimes I was forced to eat the “Christmas dinner,” although I often tried to make arrangements to eat in my cell. During my latter years, I often co-cooked a meal with a prisoner I knew for more than a decade. He would cook for others, and get enough supplies for both of us to eat and I, in turn, assisted in the cooking.
Over time, I came to look forward to the Christmas carols; it brought back a fond memory from grade school when I joined in the singing of carols with other students from Assumption School at the Peekskill Gazebo when Mom pleasantly surprised me with her attendance. Such memories remained bittersweet and most often evoked tears.
During these holidays, I was very conscious of what I was missing—having an elaborate, delicious turkey dinner with my brother, grandmother, and mother, and my excitement of wanting to see what video games and other toys I would get as gifts. I was, after all, only 17 when I was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison, in contrast to the grown men I was in prison with.
In my latter years, after my appeals had been exhausted by 2001, and with nobody answering my desperate letters seeking assistance to clear my name, I sometimes wondered how many more holidays I was to spend in prison, and even whether I would ever again experience a holiday free.
My consciousness of my situation was enhanced by increased awareness during the holidays of the vastly different realities of the lives of the guards and civilian staff and myself. I had just as much to be free as them, I thought. I had committed no crime; I was innocent. I felt my life wasting away, and I was aware of the extremely limited opportunity to better my life, a condition which would not exist were I not imprisoned. The senselessness of the entire situation really got my goat. I was enraged, yet helpless. I believed in being proactive, but all my appeals failed and my letters seeking help fell on deaf ears. I was fighting an unseen enemy, a system that, even when I spoke its language in the form of having the law and facts on my side, nonetheless didn’t care. Would it ever end? In time, I began to dread Christmas and New Year’s because of the increased feelings of helplessness and frustration it brought.
“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.