All I want for Christmas is…toothpaste?!
By Alice Matisz
Last December I had a rare opportunity to visit the Lethbridge Correctional Centre to participate in a Christmas celebration. This involved the distribution of “goodie bags” to every inmate. There were several treats in those bags but the most appreciated, hands down, were the toothpaste and soap. According to one inmate, prison-issue toothpaste and soap taste the same; hence the excitement over Crest toothpaste and Irish Spring soap. But it wasn’t the toiletries that made my evening. In a night of novel experiences, one particular moment shone with unforgettable grace. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I arrived late in the afternoon, as a guest of Catholic Chaplain Mike Hazelwood. My guide was prison-ministry volunteer Colette Lemire. In the lobby we met several other volunteers from All Saints Parish. This small, dedicated group takes turns conducting Sunday Catholic Services throughout the year. Excitement ran high because we would be meeting-and-greeting every one of the 267 inmates that night. Inmate attendance was mandatory. By contrast, Sunday Services normally draw a dozen or so people. We left coats, purses, phones and keys in lockers, showed I.D. and walked through a metal detector into the administrative area. Here we were herded together by a uniformed guard and led past a central control room. A group of unsmiling guards glanced up from an array of monitors then returned their attention to the screens. They were responsible for locking and unlocking doors throughout the facility as request buttons were pushed and identifications verified via closed-circuit cameras. All this I would learn later. In the beginning, I was only aware of tan walls, tiled floors and echoing voices while we waited for doors to be opened for us and locked again once we passed through.
As we entered the gymnasium, it was clear extensive planning had preceded this event. The utilitarian space was decorated with festive posters and cards. Someone had even threaded red, white and green streamers through a volley ball net to create a decorated screen. Against one wall, long tables were laid out and a small army of civilians was already engaged in organizing treats. Apparently the Lethbridge Support Group, comprised of volunteers from various local churches, began this Christmas Program over 25 years ago. It had been refined and expanded over the years and now ran like clockwork. Brown paper bags, colourfully decorated by youth from Immanuel Christian and Coaldale Christian schools, were snapped open to receive beef jerky, muffins, corn nuts, candy, mandarins and toiletries. The assembly line buzzed with conversation as introductions were made between volunteers. Upstream from me were Bert and Shirley Konynenbelt who volunteered so consistently they no longer counted the years.
Within forty minutes the bags were filled and arranged by unit-number onto wheeled carts. We paused to nibble leftover oranges. Treat in hand I could finally peruse the paper sacks. Each was a work of art. They proclaimed; “God so loved the world that he sent his only son”; and “Jesus loves everyone – including you.” The sentiments were heartfelt, the drawings meticulous. Clearly great effort had gone into the making of these wrappings. I was told the inmates noticed too; especially the women. Protestant chaplain, Myron Krause, explained that it was these women inmates who had decorated the gymnasium earlier that day. Intrigued, I examined their decorations more closely. There were several posters. Some were rudimentary but others showed considerable creativity; a Christmas tree devised from green bows, a hand-drawn nativity scene. Store-bought greeting cards were part of the decorations too. To my astonishment some contained personal notes; heart-breaking words. “To ____, I miss you so much it hurts”. “Merry Christmas ____ and ____, Sorry Mommy can’t be there.” I blinked back tears.
Myron gathered us all together on a set of bleachers and explained the evening’s protocol. Each of the prison’s eight units would arrive separately. We would sing a few carols, he would offer an inspirational message, then we’d hand out bags, shake hands and the inmates would leave. Myron prayed a blessing over the volunteers and a subgroup splintered off to sing and distribute gifts to segregated units. Segregation encompasses a few inmates who are injured or disciplined, plus a score or so who are separated from the general population for safety. I would have liked to visit those cells but missed the call. Once locked, the gym doors do not reopen for latecomers. I consoled myself by talking with a guard who was also the recreation-coordinator. He told me all the weight equipment in the gym was purchased with inmate-funds not taxpayers money. From his vast knowledge of the centre, I also learned that three German prisoners-of-war had died here in the mid 1990’s, their bodies shipped home. There was a burial ground on site but it was an ancient Indian one, upon which nothing would ever be built. The most intriguing tidbit was that the prison is thought by some to be haunted. Our conversation was halted by the arrival of the first unit.
I felt excited and curiously self-conscious as a crowd of men, wearing either blue jumpsuits, or grey sweats, filed onto the bleachers. Some looked alert and friendly, others bored. Many looked tired and one appeared to be ill. Some were older men, some fresh-faced; sporting many styles of facial hair and ubiquitous tattoos. There was a disproportionate number of visible minorities. Myron welcomed them and introduced the Entz Family, who would be leading the singing. This ensemble of six young men and a girl, (siblings and cousins I would later learn), seemed an unlikely church choir. Their farm boots and checked shirts made one think more of country music than carollers. However, they had apparently been singing together since childhood. As their incredible seven-part harmony filled the gym, inmates and volunteers alike, gasped in admiration. Spontaneous applause burst out. This would be repeated throughout the night as the Entz Family gamely sang hour upon hour with no signs of tiring.
Long before the night was over, my own voice was hoarse. My favorite part of each presentation was shaking hands with inmates even though I ran out of creative greetings early in the evening. The men, and later women, were unfailingly polite, even those who had been visibly dismissive during a performance. Myron told each group that the Chaplaincy Team considered it a privilege to get to know them. He reminded each unit that Jesus was a light for dark times. Earlier Myron told me this facility is a minimum-security prison, so no sentenced inmate serves longer than two-years-less-a-day. However, many of the inmates are repeat offenders, struggling to re-think and re-establish their lives. “The common theme is brokenness,” Myron said.
Yet somehow out of this brokenness came one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received. It came from Unit 7. As the last carol was sung to Unit 7 one inmate came forward to whisper in Myron’s ear. Myron relinquished the microphone in surprise. The unofficial leader of the unit proceeded to thank us volunteers for our “altruism” and then said the entire unit had spent their day making Christmas cards for us. At that, they stood en masse and each handed a folded card to one of the volunteers. The card I received depicted a whimsical hand-drawn Santa on the cover with a dozen signatures inside. The man who gave it to me seemed proud to offer it. I stammered my thanks, struck almost dumb by the notion that I was receiving a gift from someone I had come to offer gifts to.
I cherish that card because truly that night Jesus shone a light in the darkness of my preconceptions. And He illuminated the hearts of those inmates too, reminding them that everyone has blessings to share. We too can share a piece of ourselves with those who are imprisoned. I encourage parishioners to pray for the inmates and staff of the Lethbridge Correctional Centre. We are all equal under God - equally dependent upon the love and the mercy of our Saviour.