I still remember my first Thanksgiving in prison. I was assigned to the Holliday Unit at the time, an unlikely name for a prison unit. The unit is located on Interstate 45 north of Huntsville, Texas. It extends for half a mile from front entrance to back gate. The unit houses more than 2000 residents, and is designated as a transfer facility, intended to hold men for no more than two years before they are assigned to a permanent unit.
I had been incarcerated for a little more than a year including county jail time, and had lingered at Holliday for ten months with no job assignment and minimal activity. The meals were grim. We had to walk to the chow hall and appointments with our hands behind our backs, and we were treated with a level of contempt that still saddens me today. Officers yelled, threatened, and ridiculed. Often, a female lieutenant looked at us with such derision that her lips seemed to curl and purse automatically, as though the sight of us made her want to spit. She would enter the dormitory and threaten to release tear gas, because the 100 bored inmates were talking too loudly.
Given my experience in prison up to that point, nothing prepared me for Thanksgiving in prison. I walked slowly through the chow hall line. When I reached the front I received a tray piled with food, most of it quite good in comparison to what had been served during the preceding year. They gave us plenty of time to eat, which didn’t stop me from shoveling the food in my mouth before I had swallowed the previous bite. I had learned that when the officer knocked on the table it was time to get up, regardless of how much food was left on my plate.
When we walked out of the chow hall, the Warden herself handed me a dessert plate to take with me back to the dorm. She wished me “Happy Thanksgiving” as though I were a guest in her home. The Major and Captain stood next to the Warden and both of them looked me directly in the eye and smiled warmly. I’ll never forget the experience.
I think back on that day with bitter-sweet emotion. It cost the ranking officers nothing to treat us with dignity that day. It did not compromise security, nor did it send a message that the prison authorities approved of the crimes I had committed. On that day, they reminded me of our common humanity. They showed compassion for the fact that I had to spend Thanksgiving away from my family.
Their kindness on that day took a small measure of shame away from me.
I think of what would happen in the lives of the 150,000 people incarcerated in Texas if they were treated with dignity every day of the year. I can find no evidence to suggest that such treatment would minimize the intended effect of being in prison. In fact, there is plenty of evidence from European prisons that respectful treatment actually improves rehabilitation and helps people adjust when they return home.
For me, the warmth I experienced on that first Thanksgiving in prison reminded me that I was worthy of a smile despite my mistakes. Treating people with dignity sends the message that they are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. Dignity says that, while we all may have different accomplishments, the one thing we share in common is a tendency to make mistakes.
Dignity was the sweetest gift on that dessert tray, and I never let it go.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, go to https://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions/rpd/rpd_volunteer.html