Going to prison on Chanukah

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8...

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8 candles burning. I used a combination of a ceiling facing strobe and a LED flashlight to create the shadow on the wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a member of a Jewish singing group. Today, I went to prison with them. No, we didn’t do anything wrong.  We were entertaining the Jewish prisoners with songs pertaining to Chanukah. One of the women in our  group,  is a volunteer with different organizations that help the prisoners once they get out of prison. A few years ago, we started going to the prison on Chanukah. This is my third time going with the group.

Going to a prison is a sobering experience. First of all,  you have to put all your possessions in a locker, or in the locked trunk of your car. ( No cell phones are allowed in the prison.) Then you have to wait in line, and take the stuff out of your coat pockets, and put it in little baskets, similar to going to the airport.  In the middle of all her checking us in, the prison admissions lady had  to unlock the bathroom, so several of us could use it.

I’m sure we don’t look very threatening. Most of us are a little older, and we look it. Plus, we were all carrying our little black music folders. All this checking in, reminded me  that I wasn’t  at  a happy place.  After all, people residing in prisons aren’t there because they were acting like model citizens.

I couldn’t help wondering what they did: were they murderers, terrorizers, thieves, drug addicts, social misfits, or just desperate people who got into trouble. It wouldn’t take all that much to drive somebody the wrong way. ( Not to mention all the mentally unstable people who don’t have a place to go except the streets or the prisons. )

After we were checked in, we all started down the hall in a group. Going down the hallway, I couldn’t help noticing that there was  a lot of unlocking and locking going on. The clanging was a little intimidating.  The bars were painted white. It didn’t whitewash the fact that the place was really a series of cages.  I thought,  what would it be like to be locked in all the time?

We passed a big room where a lot of men were sitting
together listening to a speaker. A sign said, “visitors room,” but nobody looked like they’ were visiting. Nobody looked like they are reuniting or particularly happy. I’m guessing it must be hard for them to all live together with no women around.  There was  the smell of perspiration lingering in the hallway.

We finally got to our destination, and the Jewish prisoners were waiting for us. There wasn’t a lot of them, about 15.  Not only were they waiting for us, but they cooked a feast for us to eat after our little  concert: potato pancakes, applesauce, herring, salmon pate, and luscious desserts. All of the men were  polite, and they looked like typical nice guys. Not only were they nice, but they sure can cook. I wasn’t expecting such a big spread It’s all kosher too. (I don’t keep kosher, but some of the others in the choir do.)  The men said several of them had been cooking all day and I believed it.

We sang our little performance for them, and they were  attentive and seemed to enjoy it. (Nothing like feeling appreciated.) I wondered if they  were remembering a time before they got here, when they celebrated Chanukah with their families. Were we making them feel sad or happy? One man looked pensive, as if he was thinking about another time in his life. Others wanted to clap and just enjoy themselves. I guess you have to find joy wherever you can get it.

The co-director had us mingle with the group, and we sang a Chanukah song in different groups. They  seemed to enjoy this activity, and willingly participated.  They wanted to enjoy the holiday as best as they could,  and had some fun.

One man said to me, “Do you remember me from last year?” I felt bad because he seems like he’s such a polite, handsome, young guy. He says “I’m going to be here for a while, so I’ll be here next year too.” How did he turn the wrong way? What did he do?

One man is a native of another country. He came far to find freedom, then ended up with none.

After the performance, we sat and ate the food they prepared. They came around and asked if we had everything we needed.  It reminded me of those restaurants where the manager asks, ” Does everything taste good?” After I was done eating, I went around and talked to some of the inmates.

One man told  me that the years fly by when you have a good roommate. It wasn’t so good for him the first few years because his roommate wasn’t that nice. I don’t know what he did in the first place, but he reminds me of the kid in school that could get teased. (I can almost imagine what his not so nice roommate did to him.) He said  he can see the end of the road coming because he’s going to get out by 2018. To me, four more years seemed an eternity to be locked up. To him, it’s not that far away.

Finally, the time was up for our visit. The men politely thanked us for coming to visit them.   When it’s time to go in that place, it’s time to go. We had to get in our little groups again to go back to the front desk. Back to go through the locking and unlocking routine. I was glad to be getting out of there. It put my life in a different perspective. I know I will really appreciate my freedom in the next few days.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that society needs a place to lock up people who break the law, and harm others. It’s been that way from the beginning of time. It’s a place for people who have done unforgivable things. Some of the acts are so bad, that they deserve to stay there. The good news is that some can come out of a place like that, and change for the better.