Gifts, revelry and a plea to Santa

Inmates' children relish party but would rather have Mom or Dad home

December 17, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

They asked Santa for bicycles, roller skates and Bratz dolls, but the most popular Christmas wish was both the least expensive and most difficult to deliver on.

"They say, `I want to know when I can see my mom or dad,'" said Jacqueline Jackson, who played Santa at yesterday's fourth annual "Winter Wonderland" party in West Baltimore for children with parents in prison.

"I tell them, `When it's time.'"

Hundreds of children gathered yesterday in the basement of New All Saints Roman Catholic Church on Liberty Heights Avenue for a Christmas party organized by nonprofit Justice Maryland - but thrown in the name of the parents behind bars.

In addition to face time with Santa, brunch and a raucous, Christ-centered comedy show, the kids received gift bags, bought by donors, but ostensibly given by the incarcerated parent.

The idea is to celebrate a connection between child and mother or father behind bars, not dwell on the parental absence, which is often felt most deeply during the holidays, said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, a prisoner advocacy group.

"These are the forgotten victims of crime," Haven said.

Many children said the party indicated to them that their prisoner parent - typically a father - was missing them during the holiday season.

"It makes me think he was thinking of me," said Destiny Hayes, 12, whose father has been in federal prison on gun and drug-related charges since she was 4, according to her aunt.

The most popular activity at the party was decorating and writing Christmas cards that will be sent to the incarcerated parent.

Destiny's father is scheduled to be released from a West Virginia penitentiary in five years. She wrote to him: "Thank[s] Dad for inviting me to this and I love you."

The determinedly upbeat atmosphere at the party couldn't quite cheer up Abriah Samuel, 11, a soft-spoken sixth-grader whose father has been at a state prison in Jessup for about 18 months and won't be free until 2008.

"It's hard on her," said her grandmother, Gloria Lemon. "She loves her dad so much."

Abriah said when she heard about the party, she thought it would be at Jessup, with her father. The prospect of Christmas presents was little comfort. "I don't really care about the gifts," she said. "Him. That's all I want."

While Destiny and Abriah have become somewhat accustomed to holidays without their father, Tyson Fisher, 7, was facing his first Christmas without either parent.

Tyson's father was sentenced to 13 years in prison this year on gun and drug-related charges, according to his father's aunt, Mary Doss. Tyson's mother and two grandmothers also died this year, Doss said.

That's why receiving an invitation from his father to the Winter Wonderland party was particularly important for Tyson, Doss said.

"Everybody vanished this year," she said. "One day they're all here, and the next day they're gone."

The holiday season is among the most painful times for families disrupted by prison sentences, said Haven, who speaks from experience.

The single mother began serving a three-year stint in federal prison in the late 1990s, when her son was 11. "There is an increased feeling of guilt and shame," Haven said. "It's a really deep wound that is really driven home at the holiday time."

Haven said prisoners who maintain strong bonds with their families are more likely to stay out of jail after they are released. "We know 95 percent of the people we send to prison are coming home one day. Family is very important for re-entry to society."

Ronnie Faulcon spent much of the party taking photographs of children that would be mailed to their jailed parent, part of a project sponsored by the National Women's Prison Project.

"To see a picture of your kids, that's something special," said Faulcon, who was released in 2004 after four years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Beckley, W.Va., during which he didn't see his children.

Faulcon's daughter, Ajia Moses, 15, accompanied him yesterday.

"If we had this when he was in," she said, "I would have really appreciated it."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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