Christmas in Prison by Sean

Nearly 2.5 million Americans spent this past Christmas incarcerated. Many of them deserve to be in prison for committing a crime, however, these 2.5 million Americans in prison also have families they are separated from. These men and women are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. Prison touches the lives and families of more Americans than ever before. Prison leaves a fractured family Christmas.

I cannot speak for all the men and women across the country who spent their Christmas locked behind bars. I cannot know the circumstances at other facilities but I do not see how they can be much different than the circumstances here at Corcoran State Prison during Christmas. There were no decorations in the housing units or on the prison yard, no festivities, or holiday music. There is only drab concrete walls, rusting metal fences and razor wire; lots of razor wire. You would never know one season from the other except for by the temperature or the rain.

All calendar holidays in prison are generally worse than regular days. There is no mail, one of the few things inmates look forward to. Holidays usually mean less program/out of cell time because prison staff take time off to spend with their families. This can often mean no access to the dayroom phones to call home. Every cell is searched to make sure no one is making illegal prison alcohol. And worst of all, I am separated from my wife. Holidays in prison are extremely lonely and isolating.

California State prisoners are “lucky” to be allowed visiting on the day of Christmas, December 25th. Unfortunately, very few receive such visits. Here, on a yard of 800 men there is a visiting room of only 27 tables with 4 chairs each, which does not sound like it would be enough to accommodate everyone but it is. All 27 tables are rarely ever used. I am one of the lucky ones. My wife, Emelia, has managed to be here with me on Christmas day for the past five years. Being together on Christmas means so much to me and it has become our tradition. It is both an incredible blessing to know I am this loved, and also a burden of guilt knowing my wife must sacrifice so much to be here.

Most families do not have the means to visit their loved one in prison. Sadly, children are far too often unable to visit their incarcerated mother or father. The few who do get to visit will not receive a gift directly from their incarcerated parent- any such exchange of property is forbidden. Last year at Christmas, our visiting room provided holiday coloring pages and crayons for inmates to color with their visitors. My wife and I took the opportunity to do this together for the very first time, it was enjoyable. Emelia wanted to be able to keep our special coloring we had worked on together and everyone was taking their colorings out as they left. One of the officers was snatching them away from visitors as he processed them out, illegally confiscating them even though visitors had every right to keep their drawing. He even stated he had been taking them from children all day. How can anyone justify taking perhaps the only thing that child had to remember their day with their loved one? No one deserves that kind of treatment, especially children. After this incident, through my work on the Men’s Advisory Council we clarified with the Visiting Sergeant that such a confiscation of  hand written or drawn items is not CDCR policy or procedure- but the damage was already done.

On a more positive note, we were pleasantly surprised to see the level of decorating that was done in the visiting room during our visit on Christmas this year. It was not much, but it was far more than had been done in years past. There is an officer who takes her own time and money to purchase decorations for visiting. She hangs garland, holiday shapes and phrases, covers the photo background with festive wrapping paper and sets up a wooden cut-out tree. The visiting room is a place for families after all, and she is dedicated to making it as inviting as possible given the restrictions she must face as well. We appreciate her efforts to make visiting a better place for everyone.

Written by Sean January 2019

About Sean & Emelia

In 2003 Sean O'Brien was wrongfully convicted in El Dorado County, CA and sentenced to Life Without Parole at the age of 16. We have been friends since grade school and are now married. Sean and I move forward together with the knowledge of his innocence, our faith in God, and hope that he will rightfully regain his freedom. Until then we embrace our journey wherever it may take us, cherishing each moment we have together and staying true to ourselves. This blog is about the past we share, our fight for freedom, life as it exists for us, and our path toward the future, whatever that may hold. Thank you for allowing us to be heard. God bless.
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