In reality, we don't have holidays here.
Cesal, Marijuana Lifer
On the topic of being stuck in federal prison during the holidays, most of the prisoners I spoke with while preparing this article echoed Craig Cesal’s sentiment. Especially those with long or endless sentences like the first time offender who is serving a federal life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy.
“In prison, all days are virtually the same. We awake at the same time, dress the same way, eat at the same time, and go to bed the same way. On Christmas, we see the same people---most of whom we don't like---and we do all the same things. So Christmas isn’t really a holiday,” says Craig.
Other marijuana lifers like Anthony DeJohn, who has already put in 13 years on a life plus 10-year sentence for marijuana, have given up celebrating holidays completely, while 75-year-old marijuana lifer Calvin Robinson has turned away from “man made holidays” and instead only honors “Yavah’s appointed days.”
For Crystal Munoz serving 19 years for a marijuana conspiracy, the frustrations of not being able to be with her two young daughters, are particularly sharp at this time of year.
“I deal with the same emotions each passing day, feeling helpless due to not being able to take care of my responsibilities, like my children. I find strength by seeing the things I have to be thankful for. But the time cannot be replaced. The moments that are missed, the milestones that can never be re-experienced.”
First time offender John Knock, sentenced to not one but two life sentences for a marijuana conspiracy, says, “ The prison system is designed to separate family from prisoners. A prisoner is more easily controlled when he has no one on the out side who cares.”
In many cases, it’s not that no one cares, it’s that the time and distances and between inmate and family cause such a financial burden that visits become rare to nonexistent.
That reality hit marijuana lifer Corvain Cooper hard this year after he was transferred to Louisiana from California, where his parents and 2 young daughters live.
For Cooper this will be the second holiday season spent on an extended lockdown, due to no fault of his own. Anytime there is a fight, a murder, or any other incident in a federal prison, everyone is punished as the general policy is to put the entire prison on lockdown. Sometimes the lockdowns last for a few hours or a few days, but the more serious the incident, the longer the lockdown. I have seen some stretch on for as long as 6 months. During that time prisoners are fed cold bologna sandwiches in their cells and only allowed out every few days for a quick shower.
The holidays are tough on Corvain to begin with as they encompass not only Christmas, but his birthday and his daughter’s birthdays too. For the second year in a row, not only has he not been able to see his family, he can’t even call them or email them as all communications, saving snail mail letters, are banned during lockdowns.
In the 4 years or so that I have known Corvain Cooper he has always been extraordinarily optimistic. No matter how bad things got, Corvain would always respond with, “I have faith,” and “God will get me through this.” However his latest letter to me shows the despair of a man near his breaking point. He signed off with, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
The rigorous emotional stress of incarceration can take an extra toll during the holidays and prisoners know this is a time to be particularly cautious when dealing with their fellow inmates.
“Emotions are raw at this time of year,” Craig Cesal says. “Many are angry lovers have left them out, and others are angry that they feel abandoned.”
Billy Dekle, who served 27 years in a maximum security penitentiary on a marijuana life sentence before being granted clemency by President Obama, remembers there always seemed to be more suicides at this time of year, and the increased overall tension would often provoke incidents that culminated in holiday lockdowns.
Dekle was one of the “lucky” marijuana lifers who finally escaped the nightmare of his Draconian sentence. He now enjoys spending the holidays with his family and friends, but he feels the pain of missing those who passed during the decades he spent behind bars.
“When I was in prison it consisted of 15-minute phone calls on Christmas Day and other holidays. I would get to talk to relatives and friends as the phone would be passed around. About the time I would get into the meat of the conversation the phone would cut off and I would have to wait 30 minutes before I could call back. Your minutes were limited to 300 per month which was the equivalent of about $75.00.”
Paying the price for things like phone calls, computer time, toiletries, food -- so you’re not stuck eating those bologna sandwiches for months on lockdown, and other necessities can put a burden on both the prisoners, who are paid pennies on the dollar in prison jobs, or on the families caring for them.
Billy Dekle’s wife Kay, who stood by her husband during his entire long incarceration, remembers holidays as times of mixed emotions. “For me Christmas was a time that I wanted my family to enjoy and be together. It was difficult not to think about Billy and the situation. We would wait on his call, and then try not to think the worst if the call did not come. He did not get to see the excitement in the children and grandchildren’s faces as they opened gifts and I always thought about that. I remember it being a time of laughter and joy at times and then tears when I thought of him. I would try to plan a visit during the holidays so we could include him but, on my salary, it was difficult and sometimes put a burden on the family financially depending on where he was housed.”
Holiday loneliness was another common theme among all the prisoners I spoke with.
Edwin Rubis, serving a de-facto life sentence for marijuana, says, “We try to encourage one another by keeping each other’s hopes up. We tell ourselves stories about the things we want to do when we get out. Sometimes some of the guys make some of them up, just to cope with the extreme despair of being locked up for decades.”
Rubis continues, “The only way that my prison experience, has been somewhat sane, is by remaining hopeful that one day I will be released and live a normal life. Without that hope, I do not know where I would be. Probably dead. Because these past 21 years that I have served in prison have been like a hellish nightmare day in day and day out. I try not to think about the next 19 years that I have left to serve. This not the type of life I ever wanted to live. I can never get used to it. There is really not much to say, other than ANOTHER CHRISTMAS IN PARADISE!”
How Can You Help?
One of the easiest ways to help doesn’t take much time or money. Send a letter. Let these and other cannabis prisoners know they have not been forgotten.
Any news from the outside is a welcome breath of fresh air. Talk about your day, your dog, your kids, what you had for lunch. It does not matter. You can also talk about cannabis and activism. Just never talk about anything illegal, as all letters are read by prison personnel.
BOP Mail rules:
Ink and paper only, nothing can be glued, stapled, clipped or otherwise attached.
No greeting cards (varies from prison to prison but safer to just write a letter).
White envelopes only.
Nothing can be sent in the envelope besides the letter with the exception of photographs (up to 25 photos). Prisoners love to get photos as they look at the same gray walls every day.
Find addresses for sending mail to prisoners by looking them up by name at www.bop.gov/inmateloc
You can contribute directly to a prisoner’s commissary account and help offset the expense they face for phone and computer time, copies of legal papers, toiletries, food, and other necessities. Everything a prisoner uses must be bought at the prison commissary.
To put money on an account you must know the prisoner’s name and inmate number which you can find at the locator link above. All commissary funds are sent to a central address in Iowa (NOT to the individual prison) where they are then distributed to the inmates. Do send a letter to the prisoner as well because funds will just show up on the account and in many cases the prisoners will not know who they are from.
You can wire funds or send a postal money order (yes, it must be from the post office or it will be returned). Find more details here. www.bop.gov/inmates/communications.jsp#money