We wait by the door for our turn at chow. It's Christmas dinner—really, early lunch since it's only 10:30 in the morning. Here, holiday meals are something to look forward to. They're never great, but the guys in the kitchen try hard.
The government is shut down right now so we're lucky to be having a holiday meal at all. Some of the officers here are getting a little touchy. Yesterday I saw an inmate ask one if she was going to open the music room. She stood there for a beat looking off somewhere else, then responded, "What I'm not going to do is be pushed during this shut down!" It gets a little more complicated being an inmate during these times, but finding yourself in a position in life where you have little to no power teaches you patience. We just shake our heads and laugh it off.
The phones haven't been working for the last few days. No calls are going out. It's a bad time for this to happen, it being the holidays. Everyone wants to call home, especially on Christmas.
Better I can't call my boys today anyway. They're spending Christmas and New Year's up with their aunt and uncle (their mom's sister and brother-in-law), who, from what I hear, believe my sentence was short by about 200 years. I called them the Saturday before while they were at my parents’ house. That was their Christmas call. Every Saturday I call while their mom is working. It's easier this way. Hearing what's going on with her sometimes puts me in a funk for days, and prison is the wrong place to be depressed. Though, most of the guys I've met here are somewhere on the depression spectrum. Psychology manages addictions while Medical hands out Prozac.
I'm standing next to a man who hasn't talked with his kids in 15 years. His family told them he was gone. Not in prison, not on a trip, or in the army, or on a special mission from the president. Just gone. He goes home in three months. Another man here talks to his seven year old daughter every Sunday night. She doesn't talk. He only knows she's there because he sometimes hears her breathing. Her mother convinced her he was a monster. I've gotten to know the man over time. He's not a monster. He's a man who's made mistakes, bad mistakes, and is paying for them, along with his family and those who loved him. Just like the rest of us.
We're not completely sure what will be on our trays. The rumor from the kitchen workers is half of a chicken. Usually we would get a Cornish game hen for Christmas but for some reason the warehouse doesn't have any, so we're getting a half of a chicken. There will be beans (there's always beans), greens of some kind, stuffing, bread and probably mashed potatoes with the dirty skins still on, gravy and some sort of cobbler for dessert. Sounds good, but nothing ever really tastes like home. We all think that, no matter where home happens to be.
Finally, we get released to go eat. There is a rush to the door, but we somehow make room for each other as we go out. Someone stops so an old man can get wheeled through the door. Someone else makes a crack about his driver being a little drunk and we all laugh.
On the walk down I run into a friend coming out of the chow hall. He's been down for 20 years already on a drug case. Just before he went in he held his two kids in his arms, both of them toddlers. The other day he told me how his daughter is pregnant again after losing her first child, his first grandchild, to a rare illness at under six months old. It killed him he couldn't be with her, couldn't comfort her. He's a strong man and a strong man of God. I would have no trouble trusting him with my children. We prayed for her, and for him, in our bible study. With good time he'll be out in five years. We prayed that time would be shorter too.
I grab his hand and pull him in for a hug. I ask him how he's doing. "All is well," he says, "I'm blessed," and he gives me a smile made of all cheeks and teeth; a smile bigger than any problem the world has ever thrown at him. "The food's good today," he says, and pats his stomach. "And there's a lot of it."
Outside the chow hall smells delicious, though I hold my breath as I walk past the bathroom just to the right of the entrance. It always smells of mold and rot and food left out too long in the sun. And old, clogged pipes. Immediately past the bathroom we have to choose which way to go. There are two sides to the chow hall: the "black" side and the "white" side. Blacks can eat on the white side and whites can eat on the black side, and some do, but the vast majority do not. Anyone coming in here for the first time would think segregation was alive and well, and it is, just now self-enforced.
Both lines are long and the tables all full. I make it to the serving line, get my ID scanned and grab a tray. There is little rhyme or reason to this place. We all stand in lines that intersect at odd and inconvenient points making a man feel more like one of the pigeons wandering in circles out in the yard looking for missed bits of bread than a man about to enjoy a Christmas dinner.
My tray filled, I stand in a gaggle of inmates waiting for a seat at a table to open up. There is no line here. It's the quickest gets the glory. Some men wander amidst the tables hoping to be in the right place at the right time. Others stand stolidly alert surveying a section of tables waiting to strike. Still others crowd around the handicap tables where there are no chairs, shoveling large spoonfuls of food in their mouths. It is Darwinian survival of the fittest; a slow thinning of the herd through aggravation and indigestion.
Eventually, I find a seat. Unfortunately, it's across from a man who has told me he is a practicing Buddhist relational psychologist and loves to talk about his family's nudist lifestyle. Next to him is a man who has informed me many times how he could get his Senator here with one phone call to straighten the warden out. He also once told me he was Mandy Moore's childhood dance teacher.
There is plenty of crazy here, and selfish, and self-centered. And hurt. There is injustice hovering over heads, cynicism and bitterness growing like mold on the spirits of men and death in too many hearts. But, there is also joy. There is peace. There is life.
As I sit in this mad place I look around at the hundreds of faces surrounding me. I see men who have cursed me and men who I have cursed. I see men who have prayed for me and who I have prayed for. I see a man who offered to sell me his entire Christmas tray for a few dollars so he can buy coffee next week, and a man who brought me milk every morning from the chow hall because I didn't go to breakfast. I now bring him a pocketful of leftover kiwis I find on the tables when we have them because they make him think of home.
I suddenly realize the Buddhist relational psychologist is talking to me, but I don't hear what he's saying because a lieutenant leaning against the wall yells that if we're talking we're not eating. The government shutdown again. This man, being essential to the operation of the prison, is probably not being paid. I extend a little grace and try to keep my heart soft toward him. He's usually not a bad guy. I try to do this as much as I can and probably fail more than I succeed.
My eyes drop to the feast before me. I find myself grateful for it. This place isn't really very different than the world beyond the fence. How you see it depends entirely on what you're looking at. And that's our choice alone. Right now, I'm looking at a half of a chicken baked golden brown. And it looks delicious.
Seth Piccolo, 47, is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg, in Prince George County, Virginia, where he is serving a five-year sentence for accessing and possessing child pornography.