Diversity in December
December 24, 2019
(Tim Kelly, DOC Communications)
TUMWATER – The month of December includes a variety of cultural holidays, religious days and celebrations. The Department of Corrections recognizes the importance for incarcerated individuals to celebrate their heritage; cultural and religious holidays; and build lasting memories with their families and loved ones.
Community sponsors, department employees, and incarcerated individuals all worked together to organize the celebrations and ceremonies occurring across the state’s correctional facilities and community corrections offices.
Larch Day with Santa
At Larch Corrections Center, incarcerated fathers prepared for their family friendly Christmas event by wrapping gifts for their children. Community Partnership Program Coordinator Nancy Simmons assisted the group by purchasing a variety of gifts with fundraising proceeds intended for the event.
Prior to their celebration, the group of dads gathered together in a room, picked out presents for their kids and wrapped them. Not everyone had professional wrapping skills and a few well-humored jokes passed back and forth. However, overall the group was overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to give presents to their children. Being able to spend the time wrapping gifts and knowing they would get to see their children open them – although bittersweet, is an experience they did not expect to have in prison.
“I didn’t think we would have programs like this,” said David Brown, “The programs we have here are everything. Knowing my child will have something positive to take out of this environment with a smile on their face… that means the world to me.”
It was apparent how much the event means to the individuals participating. They struggle knowing they will not be with their families this Christmas in the same way they would be if they were not incarcerated; however, they each expressed that family events help them look forward to getting out and not reoffending.
At Washington Corrections Center (WCC), the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC) assisted community volunteers, Mr. Gary Kinte’ Perry and Ms. Janet Preston from The Village of Hope, with the organization of a Kwanzaa celebration. In the community, Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration. Since the inception of Kwanzaa in 1966, its purpose has been to focus on traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce and self-improvement.
Demar Nelson, vice-president of the BPC at WCC, clarified that despite popular belief, Kwanzaa is not a substitute for Christmas, nor is it intended to be religious or political. Rather, it is a way for African-Americans to embrace their ancestral heritage that was lost over time in their communities.
The seven days of Kwanzaa are intended to recognize a specific African guiding principle on each day: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
A seven-day celebration is not something that can easily be accommodated while incarcerated. As a result, community volunteers and the WCC BPC worked together to instead create a 7-hour celebration. Each hour recognizes one of the guiding principles, in a condensed version of what might be seen in the community.
Specifically, while incarcerated, the BPC believes that celebrating Kwanzaa is an important chance to focus on re-entering the community in a positive manner. As Demar Nelson explained, those with longer sentences use the time to mentor and encourage. He believes that using Kwanzaa to reach and uplift those around him is one of the ways he finds “joy and authenticity.”
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, began this year on December 22nd at sundown. During the eight-day celebration, members of the Jewish faith across the globe celebrate what they recognize as the rededication of the Holy Temple. On December 24th, Rabbi Eli Duban, a volunteer at the Aleph Institute, drove to Monroe Correctional Complex to visit Jewish incarcerated individuals. With Rabbi Duban present, the group stood together to each light a Menorah, read from the Torah and share in a moment of prayer and reflection.
Rabbi Duban shared that this was his first time ever visiting a prison. “Hanukkah is a festival of light. I want to go to the darkest places and bring the light there... They should feel like they are not left out, even if they are in prison.” He went on to add, “Whatever they did, nobody will be left behind. We should remember to give them that feeling that they are not left out and we care about them.”
The group took a moment to share Hanukkah memories, gathered in a circle around the table and laughed together over funny and sentimental stories they remembered from the holiday season.
Joshua Goldman, a member of the Jewish faith currently incarcerated at Monroe said, “Events like this where we get to celebrate who we are, it redefines you. It lets you have a connection to your community and people. In a place where you are really disconnected from the world, due to what you have done, having the connection… It means the world to me. It makes me feel like I’m not just in prison; I’m part of a community.”
According to Rabbi Duban, having religious and cultural programs in prisons is important because, “People should be free to practice what they believe in...Whatever they want to celebrate. I believe we should all have that opportunity to do so.”
The message of the evening rang true, whatever an individuals’ religious or cultural heritage, recognizing and celebrating these events while incarcerated is a meaningful step towards re-entering the community, making connections and having a sense of belonging in a world where it is easy to feel alone.
The cultural and community events at other correctional facilities and community corrections offices continued the theme of diversity. Some of the additional events that occurred are shared below:
Cedar Creek Corrections Center held a family friendly winter event where incarcerated fathers decorated cookies and stockings with their loved ones and children. The Hands On Children’s Museum brought creative games to play, and a music band of incarcerated individuals sang Christmas carols while children danced and played. The decorations turned the gym in to a winter wonderland. Incarcerated volunteers shared that they appreciated the opportunity to participate in the event, helping children decorate stockings and cookies. Some of them do not have family who live close enough to visit, and being able to give back positively in some way made a big difference for them this holiday season.
Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) will have a Yule/Winter Solstice event attended by the Wiccan group. Chaplain Davis (Chappy) explained that as a smaller group at the facility, finding a sponsor has been difficult. Although he is there to facilitate the religious events, each group needs a sponsor from the community to be recognized as a group. In this case, Chappy had to get creative. He went out to the community, finding an alternative bookstore that allowed him to post a notice seeking a volunteer. His efforts paid off, and the Wiccan group will be able to recognize their holiday this year.
Shop-With-A-Cop was a big hit this year. Officers from WCCW and Longview field office participated in both Kitsap County and Kelso. At Shop-With-A-Cop events, a child is assigned to a law enforcement officer and then given an allowance to “shop” for presents. These types of events build the Department’s relationships with the community and provide children positive experiences with law enforcement.
At Olympic Corrections Center, in addition to observances for incarcerated individuals, Superintendent Bennett held a holiday open house for employees. Hot chocolate and goodies were provided to show appreciation for the hard work over the holidays.
Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) set up a Christmas tree in their visiting room. Donated gifts are placed under the tree. When children come to visit their incarcerated parent, they are able to pick out a gift with their dad. Similar to events at other facilities, WSP helps facilitate holiday traditions and memories between children and their dads.
Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women held its annual family friendly winter holiday event. Families wrapped gifts, ate together and visited with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Bishop Lewis House had a facility holiday event for residents and family members. Pictures were taken with Santa and families that wanted them received a copy of the photograph. One of the residents of the facility stated, “I had only recently arrived at Bishop Lewis House & being able to participate in this event and have my significant other and our children attend was fabulous and the children really loved their toys and gifts.”
Community Corrections offices organized several community-oriented events focused on supporting the community and re-entry.
Everett Community Justice Center in Snohomish County hosted its annual family winter celebration event for individuals under community supervision. The event was held at the New Life Church in Everett. Turkey and ham were prepared and served. Children were delighted to visit with Santa and receive a stuffed animal, gift and a candy cane. Quilts and bike donations came from Monroe Correctional Complex and department employees, both current and retired, assisted in ensuring the event was a success.
Throughout the month of November, Section 5 ran a coat drive. Donations included 115 gently used jackets, coats and scarves. Section 5 went on to hold their first annual “Winter Resource Event” at the Seattle Community Justice Center. The resource event aimed to provide resources for housing, health, transportation, education, training, employment, treatment, support programs/services and more. A variety of community organizations assisted with the resource event and free coats, gloves, hats, scarves and hygiene supplies were provided to attendees.
Section 1 held a Make it Merry-Winter Celebration hosted by Spokane Community Justice Center. Children and families met Santa and had their pictures taken with him. 120 children were also signed up to receive Make it Merry Christmas gifts. Section 1 shared that “the estimated 28,000 children under the age of 18 years old who have a parent incarcerated in the state's correctional facilities, are far more vulnerable than their peers to be involved in the criminal justice system. A strong community and family support can reduce the risk of this happening and can also help reduce the chance of individuals committing additional crimes.”