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Even in Jail, Reasons to Give Thanks

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Juan Corona’s Thanksgiving was not quite the real thing Thursday.

Sure, he was flanked by friends and tearing into his turkey and cranberry sauce. But he did so in a Los Angeles County jail jumpsuit, surrounded by other inmates haunted by memories of Thanksgivings past.

Corona has been incarcerated since September, when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a car. Normally he and his vast extended family begin Thanksgiving at church, then proceed to a relative’s house for a feast of turkey, pozole and menudo.

“The thing that I like the most is when we’re in church,” said Corona, his voice catching. “We hold hands together like one big family. That’s the beautiful part. That’s a beautiful life.”

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For the inmates in the Twin Towers jail at the northern edge of downtown Los Angeles, Thursday was a painful shadow of a holiday. A few could see relatives, but only through the thick plexiglass that separates visitors from inmates. Others clutched joyfully at the bags of ramen noodles and candy bars that guards distributed as treats, and savored the hot Thanksgiving meal in place of their usual bologna sandwiches.

Yet even here there was prayer and thanks, albeit mixed with bitter regret. “I’m thankful to still be alive. I’m thankful I’ll still have a chance to see my family,” said Rafael Bijios, 23, of Silver Lake, gazing around the pod where he and his fellow inmates ate. “I’m happy to see life, period.”

Thanksgiving in Los Angeles County had many faces, from the private family dinners in suburban houses to the circus-like atmosphere downtown as Laker girls gave away free meals to the hungry outside Staples Center and politicians, celebrities and costumed actors dished out vittles to the homeless in skid row missions.

Mayor Richard Riordan presided over the feeding at Staples Center, then moved on to the Union Rescue Mission, which Webcast the meal it gave to thousands of the homeless and working poor. Hardly anyone noticed the mayor amid the actors depicting “Star Wars” movie characters, the comedian on stilts and several local music groups there to entertain the diners.

It was OK by Monroe Herbert, who has lived on downtown streets about five years. “I like carnivals,” she said.

A more somber air permeated Twin Towers.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department goes out of its way to make Thanksgiving as festive as possible for its inmates, many of whom have been charged with crimes but not convicted. At Twin Towers, visiting hours run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The staff serves three hot meals instead of the usual two, and lunch is a bona fide Thanksgiving feast.

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“They put a lot more effort into it,” Sgt. Bryan Williams said of the jail’s cooks. “They try to exceed what’s required.”

About 11 a.m. a clutch of inmate workers stood in the hall outside Pod 151--the open space lined with two-man cells in what is the main architectural unit of the jail. The workers ladled turkey, dressing, gravy, yams and pumpkin pie into plastic trays. As other inmates took the trays, they exchanged hearty greetings of “Happy Thanksgiving!” with each other and the watching deputies.

“This food makes it feel more like home,” said Albert Wilson, 30, as he filled the trays and passed them down to his fellow prisoners. “It’s simply better quality--smells better, looks better.” And, Wilson added, “there’s more enjoyment” in serving it.

But Wilson, who said he is awaiting trial on charges of evading arrest, said it was far from a real Thanksgiving. He was waiting for a chance at the telephones in the evening, when he could call his wife and his parents in Florida.

Darnell Diggs--fresh out of state prison after three years for narcotics violations and battling a robbery charge that landed him in Twin Towers two weeks ago--also wanted to send a message to someone outside. He approached a reporter and spoke about his good friend Byron, at whose Reseda house he had hoped to pass the holiday.

“I wanted to say hi and happy Thanksgiving,” Diggs said, watching the reporter jot down the greeting. “It’s tough not saying that to him.”

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In another pod upstairs, Miguel Mendoza bent over his tray in a long, silent prayer. The soft-spoken 28-year-old was joined by Corona and two other friends as he began his meal.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” Mendoza said, gesturing to his hot meal. It was far better than his birthday two weeks ago, the first one he ever spent behind bars and the first one he passed without his mother, who shares the same birthday.

He planned to call his mother and entire family that evening. “It’s not all that bad,” Mendoza said, sounding somewhat surprised about his first Thanksgiving behind bars. “At least I have friends here.”

In the back of the room, John Ingram seemed to have little to be thankful for. Back in 1990 he led Harbor College to a baseball championship, then was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies. He said he spent nearly three years in the Phillies system and made it briefly to the majors before an arm injury derailed him and a methamphetamine addiction finished him off.

“It’s real rough for me,” Ingram said, choking up as he recounted a string of petty thefts and lost opportunities. “I let a lot of people down.”

Still, Ingram has hopes for redemption. He dreams of speaking to schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs after he is released from jail. And he was able to take advantage of the holiday to find his own silver lining.

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“I’m thankful that my family’s healthful. I’m thankful that I’m alive,” Ingram said. “And I’ll be even more thankful when I can get out of here.”

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