Jails Lighten Up a Bit for Christmas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Christmas in jail.

No caroling, no stockings, no roasting chestnuts, no tree decorating, no family, no hot toddies.

And no Santa Claus.

"He knows if you've been naughty or nice," said Sheriff's Sgt. Brent Kerr, a Todd Road Jail watch commander. "Most people in jail have done something wrong."

Nobody said jail was supposed to be fun. But the jailhouse blues are especially contagious during Christmas and other major holidays.

"You never get used to it," said Tony Bocek, 39, who has spent seven holidays behind bars and is serving four months at the Sheriff's Department Honor Farm in Ojai. "You never get used to missing your family."

Although Ventura County's 1,200 inmates are purposely denied many of the simple pleasures people associate with Christmas, the Sheriff's Department strives to make Christmas at the county's three jails reasonably pleasant.

"With security in mind, we try to do the best we can for the inmates," said Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Johnson, also a watch commander at the Todd Road Jail. "It's not like being at home, but we try to do something special."

Come Christmas Day, the porridge is set aside and inmates get a hefty helping of turkey, ham and all the fixings--minus the in-laws. Even prisoners in solitary confinement get a tray of Christmas dinner treats.

"It's a really good meal," said Sgt. Kevin Marple, a watch commander at the honor farm. "We eat it too. It's as good as you'd get in a restaurant."

The ham is fresh--straight from the honor farm's own slaughter house. But the vegetables are canned, and sometimes the turkey is one of those reconstituted loaves.

But forget about lingering over the holiday meal. Inmates are allowed just 15 minutes to chew and swallow.

Second helpings? "The inmates only get one portion, but it's a healthy portion," Marple said.

And leftovers? Inmates can look forward to several days of ham and turkey-loaf sandwiches and chicken soup, Marple said.

Also, religious volunteers hand each inmate a care package filled with peanuts, hard candy, trail mix, corn nuts, granola bars and homemade brownies.

"It's a little Christmas present," said Chaplain Bill Glaser, who coordinates religious services in the three jails.

Actual Christmas presents are verboten, because they pose a logistics nightmare.

"We'd have to search everything," Johnson said. Jail policy only permits letters to be exchanged, and religious volunteers hand out two stamped Christmas cards to every inmate.

In addition to a big meal, inmates get a day off from chores. They are free to attend Catholic Mass and watch football all day like many Americans. And if an inmate can convince others to change the channel, there's always the possibility of watching "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life" yet again.

Inmates, who have unlimited access to collect-call-only telephones, tend to spend much of the day chattering to family members, Marple said.

In general, Christmas Day is exceptionally quiet, with inmates lazing around, digesting the big meal, jail officials said.

It's not a particularly fun day for deputies either.

"It's hard on staff too," said Johnson, who has worked 10 Christmases in the past 16 years. "I have to be at work at 6 a.m. and don't leave until 6 p.m. I'll miss getting up with my family, and by the time I get home, they will have already had their Christmas."

Although Christmas decorations are forbidden in jail cells, deputies sometimes decorate their guard booths with small plastic Christmas trees.

It's a token nod to the holiday, but one that many inmates sadly treasure.

"I can see the colored lights in the control room when I wash the windows," said Stacey Gladney, who will spend her first Christmas away from her four children while serving a year at the honor farm. "I guess I'll appreciate the holidays even more next year."

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