‘This Means the World to Me’
A holiday with family offers hope to inmates — and reminds them of what’s waiting for them outside.
For the first time in three years, 30-year-old Krisse Thompson watches her children unwrap dozens of presents. Nerf guns. Star Wars action figures. Board games. As her children glow with excitement, it’s Thompson’s face that is priceless as she tears up.
“The past three years, I’ve had no Christmas spirit,” she says. “Being incarcerated, the holidays were always depressing and lonely. This just brings tears to my eyes.”
Christmas has come to Casa Grande Transitional Housing, a state facility for nonviolent inmates within 18 months of parole. Parents, siblings, children, and close relatives fill the room with laughter during the nearly three hours they spend with their families, each with their own little pocket of the room. “I cried when I found out we got to do this,” says Debbie Smith, Thompson’s mom. “It’s been too long.”
This is the second time the local nonprofit Hope for Prisoners, which offers inmate re-entry services, has hosted this event, allowing 20 inmates to celebrate the holiday. “I remember just how lonely it was behind bars on Christmas,” says founder Jon Ponder, once an inmate himself. “My last Christmas behind bars, I told myself it was the last time, and that I would never put myself in the situation to be taken away from my children and my family ever again.” Seeing their families on this night, other inmates at the event are no doubt making the same pledge.
Jerod Beck’s 4-year-old daughter clings to him as they wait in line for Christmas dinner: turkey with all the fixings and a slice of pumpkin pie. Even as he and his wife, Kellie, are excited for this family time, the night also serves as a step toward rebuilding their relationship. “I made mistakes that put a strain on my family and left my wife alone with our daughter,” says 42-year-old Beck. “This helps us start to rekindle our marriage.” Though he will be at Casa Grande at least another year, his wife says this night feels like a new beginning for them.
As much as this event is for the family members, James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, says it could incentivize inmates. “This is bigger than just reuniting families,” he says. “For fathers to see their kids and realize how much their kids rely on them or are excited to see them, that gives them hope. That gets them motivated to want to get out of here and get back to their families.” He adds that one of the factors that helps reduce recidivism rates and keeps inmates from returning > to prison is community support. “There is no stronger support than family,” he says. At the same time, this is one step on what can be a difficult path to social re-entry. “Each year, Nevada releases nearly 6,000 inmates back into the community,” Ponder says. “Most of these men and women are released with limited employment opportunities, no finances or housing, and a lack of strong family support.”
A day before the event, inmates transformed the cafeteria at Casa Grande for the occasion. They lined the ceiling and walls with lighting and tinsel. For each family’s section of the room, there was a couch and a real tree that filled the air with pine scent and was surrounded by presents, all items requested by the families and provided by Hope For Prisoners and its community sponsors.
By the time they arrive, the children are ready to open gifts, but that isn’t happening until later. In the meantime, they listen to Christmas carols, open stockings, and eat dinner. Metro officers pass out stuffed animals to each kid. Santa Claus and Sesame Street’s Elmo visit.
And then, the magical moment. “It’s time to open presents,” someone announces, sending the children into a frenzy. “I miss this,” Thompson says.
As with any Christmas, the night ends with the most mundane of parental tasks — stuffing shreds of wrapping paper into trash bags. None of the parents would trade away even this smallest of moments. “This night means the world to me,” Beck says.