For the 200 or so people living in Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Complex, the Christmas season began with visits from community groups and ended with dinner and games.
“Christmas day itself is usually pretty quiet,” said Wildwood superintendent Robert Hibpshman.
Leading up to the day, however, there had been a rush of activity from organizations in Kenai, mainly churches. “We have a large faith-based community that comes in here all the time,” Hibpshman said. “The holidays, especially Christmas, is a real big thing for them, and they spend a lot of time here with the guys and ladies.”
Wildwood inmate Don Stumpf has experienced 34 Christmases in the different institutions where he’s been incarcerated. Nonetheless, he said that one volunteer effort earlier this season had been a novelty for him, at least in Wildwood.
“I’ve been here in this particular facility for three years now, and this is the first year that (volunteers) came in and gave us a Christmas present and carolled, which was really nice,” Stumpf said. “We came down for dinner and they were lined up against the wall there and sang a chorus. We ate dinner, and on the way out they’d shake our hands and wish us a merry Christmas and give us a Christmas gift, which was really nice… I’m 66, I don’t have family anymore. Whoever shows up on the social side of just being human beings, and is nice to me… I think that’s kind of cool,” he said.
Still, Stumpf added that such events don’t produce the kind of interaction he said he wished for between inmates and members of the community.
Community members sometimes “seem to not understand that not everybody in jail is in on sick charges or obscene-type things, ” Stumpf said.
“The majority of people don’t understand prison or jail,” Stumpf said. “Those people who volunteer learn one way or the other, and accept it one way or the other. As far as participation goes with the public, you need to go see and talk to (inmates) and then make up your mind.”
A memorable event for inmate Jonathan Norton was the Salvation Army’s Toys for Tots program — which gave inmates a chance to select donated toys that the Salvation Army would ship to their children as Christmas presents — although Norton said he had experienced it before.
“They’ve had that in most of the Alaska system since I’ve been in,” Norton said. “…Here (the inmates) actually got to go the gym, where they set up a bunch of toys on the table, and they got to pick out what toys they wanted for their kids… Usually out-of-state it was just a catalog, and really it was kind of some junky toys, but I imagine anything from your father is better than nothing. Here, they had a really good selection of some quality toys. I saw a little beat machine, puzzles, perfume, little tool kits. They set it up by ages from toddlers to young teenagers. It was actually a pretty nice set-up.”
Wildwood inmates were donors to the Salvation Army as well as recipients. North said the Wildwood Inmate Council, of which he is a member, sends about $1000 to charities each year from a fund it earns from sales in the prison commissary. Wildwood’s two other prisoner associations — a black culture and a Native culture group — make similar donations throughout the year, Norton said. This year the council’s giving included a $500 check to the Salvation Army.
Norton himself has no local family members. He’s originally from Cleveland and all his family is out of state. He said he’d be “hard-pressed” to send them gifts.
“I’ve got a very small budget,” Norton said. “The most I sent this year is cards. But it is what it is.”
As for holiday activities he organized with the council, Norton said “We got movies. That’s probably the most important thing we do for the population… Everything we can do to help with the Christmas blues.”
New acquisitions are mostly recent movies.
“We just got ‘Minions,’” Norton said. “’Ant-man.’ Whatever new releases we’re going to get. We’re only allowed PG-13.” He said the council tries to get new movies every month, and “for the holidays we try to get more than usual.”
“Distractions are a big thing,” Norton said. “Especially around this season. Anything to keep your mind off what you’re missing outside. It helps a lot.”
Another source of distraction, Norton said, are sports and games. The Inmate Council organized a series of tournaments that Hibpshman said began Friday night and would last until Sunday, featuring competition in card games, volleyball, handball, and basketball. Norton said the tournament would hold two games a night for three days.
“Some friendly competition, a small prize at the end,” Norton said, describing the tournaments. “We have a bunch of different people from a bunch of different areas. Sometimes it’s stressful. So it’s more of a community-building thing… it’s teamwork.”
Wildwood inmate Daniel Hill said sports were an important part of prison life, though he didn’t plan to participate in the tournaments himself. He said “people are really quick to sign up” for games and athletics.
“I think there’s a subtle undertone of competition in here,” Hill said. “You don’t want to be the small guy… In the summer, there’s a lot of track and field sports, and softball. In the winter, it’s all about the basketball and handball.”
Hill, who had been in Wildwood for a year and a half, said the winter temperature and short daylight hours contribute to a depressing atmosphere that the holiday can make worse.
“For most people, I think this is a very painful time of year,” Hill said. “For instance, I’ve only had three people come up to me and say ‘Merry Christmas.’ (Christmas) makes it hard for a lot of people. It makes it hard for me… I’m a retired combat veteran, and it was hard for me to even acknowledge it was Christmas today.”
All four prisoners interviewed for this story had no family in Alaska. The means of communication available to them, Hill said, were letter-writing and phone calls with a 15 minute time-limit.
Hill identified himself as a Christian, while Norton said he was “more spiritual than religious.” For Norton, “it’s more about the spirit of the holiday than what it derives from,” he said. Inmate James Stoneking took an opposite view, dismissing Christmas’ secular aspects.
“Christmas to me is your faith,” Stoneking said. “A lot of the guys who are out there missing the gift-giving and this and that, to me that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s about the birth of Christ.”
Stoneking, who was in his 60s and said he had been jailed for 28 years in 8 prisons in three different states, said music was one thing he missed.
“I miss hearing my mom sing in the choir,” Stoneking said. “She has a beautiful voice, and my dad and me, my sisters and me, we all sang in the choir growing up. We used to go down the street and have a horse-drawn wagon with hay on it. And the Methodist youth, I was one of them, we’d be singing carols on it going through town. I’m from West Virginia. We do that back there. I’d like to see that here.”
Stoneking said the distance from his family made him unlikely to receive visits in person.
“I’ve got two kids,” Stoneking said. “I haven’t seen them since ‘87. I see kids on movies, TV and things, that gets me a little upset. I cry… Family’s important to me. I do what I can to help the other guys in here that are fathers deal with that. I say ‘I know what you’re feeling, because I’ve been doing that for the last couple decades.’”
In that span of time, Stoneking said his embrace of religion had been a help.
“Each Christmas gets a little easier because my faith gets a little stronger,” Stoneking said. “My faith is the strongest now that it’s ever been… I wish I could have sang in a choir this Christmas.”
Christmas day may have been quiet in Wildwood, but aside from the athletic tournament it merited at least one other special event. When inmates entered the Christmas-decorated cafeteria for dinner Friday, they were given a special meal.
Wildwood meals are prepared by inmates — Norton estimated that about 50 of them work in the kitchen. He said the meals they usually make are plain, including food like pork loin, potatoes, and salad. Many of the kitchen workers study in Wildwood’s cooking and baking apprenticeship programs, including Norton, a baking apprentice. He said the holiday meal was a chance for them to get extra practice.
“We’re blessed to have decent food, but on the holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, we’re even more blessed to have the apprenticeship program,” Norton said. “(The holiday meal) is kind of learning as well as giving to the facility.”
Friday’s Christmas meal featured pork loin and salad, but also included green bean casserole, Au Gratin potatoes, stuffing, and dinner rolls, with apple streusel and coffee cake for desert.
Hill said the special food was surprise to him.
“I didn’t know they were doing anything different tonight,” he said. “…To have Au Gratin potatoes and stuffing, it definitely boosts your mood. I just got off the phone with my mom, and she was crying. It’s kind of hard to recover from. So then you come in here and have this nice meal… At first you see the Christmas tree, and you’re like ‘oh man, what a cheesy little plastic tree.’ But after a while, you’re like ‘that’s really nice that they even thought to put a tree here.’ It’s nice that they thought to put lights up. As hastily strung as they are, it’s still nice.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.