What Christmas is Like in the Tom Green County Jail
Approximately 400 citizens of the city and county will spend their Christmas behind bars this year, locked away from the festivities and merriment their families will share beyond the Tom Green County Jail’s walls.
But despite the rather drab surroundings of the county’s jailhouse, a handful of local organizations have come together once again this year to make a difference in the lives affected by incarceration, handing out some 520 boxes of gifts to children who’s guardians are behind bars.
The program, titled Christmas Hope, has been an annual effort put on by Through Christ Comes Justice ministry for the last 16 years. Each year around Nov. 1, a group of volunteers comes together to begin making preparations for the ministry’s largest event of the year, taking funds provided through private donations and a grant for $8,000 provided by the Eva Tucker Foundation and purchasing gifts for children up to age 17.
“We go, we give them a gift, we invite them to our own church and a church in their area—we try to scope out the area and have a church to invite them to—we pray with them if they’re receptive to that,” said Chaplain Julie Green. “We try to include an adult to make sure the family is getting ministered to as the inmates are. We want to see them all grow in the lord to be better in this community or whatever community they’re released to.”
Stacks and stacks of medium-sized square boxes occupied a room in the Sheriff’s Office the week before Christmas, each with a red card bearing the childrens’ names and the name of the inmate they belong to taped to the front. Inside the boxes were age-appropriate toys of a non-violent nature, ranging from baby dolls and construction trucks to bracelet looms and watches.
When inmates fill out the request for items, the note down the ages of their children and their likes and dislikes. A handful of volunteers then go and shop for the gifts, package them up and deliver them to the homes of the children.
Although the inmates’ names are on the front of the boxes, Green and the other volunteers present them as “gifts from Jesus”.
“The thing about it is we can’t say ‘Merry Christmas from [the inmate],’ because we don’t know what kind of a mess they left behind,” Green explained. “So, say the adult is able to say in the home [who it’s from]. If the child has been violated or something, obviously we would not want to say, ‘Merry Christmas from your violator’. So that’s the reason we do it that way.”
Over the years, Green said she’s witnessed time and again the overwhelming joy of children who otherwise might not receive much for the holidays. Volunteers recalled stories of meeting families who eyes welled up with tears when they arrived with boxes, stating, ‘This will be the only thing they will have for Christmas this year’, but one young woman in particular stood out for Green, whom she met over 12 years ago.
“Several years ago I was delivering over near the mall…and we went to a teenage girl. Our primary target is 12 and under, but this was a young, maybe 15, 16 [year-old],” she said.
“I remember walking up to the door… and I asked for the young lady and she came to the door and she was real skeptical, like ‘what is this?’ I said, ‘Well honey, I have a Christmas gift for you from Jesus’…she said, ‘well, thank you’. The door shut and I heard her scream bloody murder. It scared me. I though I had done something wrong.
“And then I heard her cry out loud, ‘My mother didn’t forget me!’ And it meant so much to her. I have heartwarming stories like that over and over and over.”
Green said oftentimes the children are overwhelmed by the gifts and will search for something to give in return. The circumstances differ in each household, she said, but the reception they receive makes the project worthwhile.
“We have delivered to homes that have dirt floors,” she said. “We have delivered to homes that have eight or 10 kids in them because mom and dad and auntie and uncle are all in jail and the grandparents cannot afford [to buy gifts]. These children didn’t do anything wrong.”
Green and the people at the ministry teach an estimated 40 hours a week in local correctional facilities. Although life in the jail remains pretty much the same on holidays, the inmates do receive Christmas cards and cookies provided by the ministry and community organizations.
“Each will receive a card, a cookie, a handshake and a Merry Christmas,” she said. “We shake every single hand in that jail.”
This year the inmates will receive cards drawn by an inmate Green discovered while he was working on the windows of the Sheriff’s Office. She said she tries to incorporate inmate art into the holiday program, both to let them express themselves and aid in the ministry.
“There were some over here doing the windows and said, ‘Hey, which one of you is an artiste for me?’” she explained. “He was excited to get to do it. They’re very honored when they’re chosen for something.”
For the roughly 400 men and women taking up residence in the county jail, Christmas will pass much like any other day.
Traffic in and out of the jail on holidays generally slows, says Captain Todd Allen, and a small influx of visitors is seen as families have more time off work.
“It’s just like an ordinary day for us,” Allen said. “It’s typically a little slower on those days, but it’s just a regular day.”
One notable difference, however, occurs at lunchtime, when the inmates are served a traditional Christmas dinner consisting of turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes and other side items.
“It’s really not extra,” Allen explains. “It falls in the realm of the food that we serve them anyway as far as the calorie count and things like that. It’s just—it helps the climate of the jail. It’s not a reward, per se, it just tempers the fact that you’re in jail.”
The jail’s menu is prescribed by adhering to guidelines set out by the American Corrections Association, Aramark representative Steve Brown explained. Dieticians plan meals based on calorie count and the activity of a particular correctional unit, and meals are prepared by five to 10 trustees under supervision.
“It depends on which facility you’re in on the calorie intake you’re going to take,” Brown said. “Here, everybody’s sedentary so you’re not going to take in as many calories as, say in Eden, where they’re actually outside working or playing sports.”
The Christmas meal is usually a pleasant surprise, Allen explained, as most of those in the jail or there for periods that don’t exceed six months to a year, so they’re not aware that the holiday meals will be served. On Thanksgiving, inmates are offered a similar menu.
During the holidays, the jail remains pretty much unchanged on the interior, cold, gray cinderblock walls casting echoes of chatter and men and women proclaiming their innocence through the well-lit but windowless maze of doors.
Allen said they had talked about doing some decorating in the past, but due to the jail’s many levels and divisions, realized it wouldn’t be feasible.
“One year, one of the inmates in one of the cell blocks made a Christmas tree out of toilet paper rolls,” Allen said. “It was pretty neat. We let them keep it. You know, it wasn’t hurting anything.”
Allen explained the tree was about three feet tall and took a lot of toilet paper rolls to complete. Another year, the corrections officers decorated the booking area with lights and other décor, but it hasn’t been done recently. “It got a little out of hand,” Allen laughed, noting the explosion of Christmas cheer that had been brought in.
In the past, Bishop Pfeifer would visit the jail on Christmas Eve to hold a mass. At the time of interview Allen had not yet confirmed whether or not Bishop Sis would continue the tradition, but the visit from Julie Green and her ministry group is still planned to proceed as customary. More on that next.
Court-Ordered Treatment Centers
On the edge of town, two court-ordered treatment facilities serve as a short-term home for individuals battling addiction. The facilities function on a step-program modeled after the 12 steps to sobriety developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and those living within the walls face six to nine months of rehabilitation, counseling and treatment as an alternative to being sent to overcrowded jails.
The men’s unit is called the Roy K. Robb Center, and the women’s unit is divided into two sections: the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) and the Court Residential Treatment Center (CRTC).
On Dec. 16, Julie Green and three other women associated with the Through God Comes Justice ministry visited both sides of the women’s unit, carrying trunk-loads of baked goods, cookies and paper sacks filled with holiday goodies.
The women of the ministry received a warm welcome from the inmates, who were seated at big plastic tables devouring a lunch of nachos when the women came in. Each had a brown paper sack placed before them, with images of ornaments, Christmas trees and wreaths shaded in with colored pencils.
After the women had settled at their tables, Chaplain Julie Green gave a brief introduction, reminding each that they were created for a special purpose. Although the women in the matching dark blue uniforms had deviated from that path, Green encouraged them that “God can fix it”, which was met with a chorus of “amens” from the 50 women seated in the small room.
The celebration heightened as Green led the women in song, selecting Christmas favorites such as “Jingle Bells” and “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” before moving on to a touching rendition of “Sanctuary” that included a second verse many of those present knew well.
“Lord teach your children; to stop the fighting; start uniting; all as one. Let’s get together; loving forever; sanctuary; for you.”
At the conclusion of the second verse, Green explained its significance.
“That was written in the jail many years ago by one of the inmate’s children, who said, ‘Momma, if you could just stop fighting with the world, you could come home,’” Green explained.
As Green began her ministry, she infused many personal stories into her message, relating to the women through various experiences and turning the conversation to God as she talked about working through problems in life.
The ministry centered on devotion, and as Green discussed “putting God on a payment plan” by promising to be good if he’d provide for them, she focused on their present situation and made example of how “being real good” on occasion isn’t enough to keep the devil at bay.
Only Christ can protect you from the evil of the world, she said, relaying a story of two of “her girls” who had “built a little box” so one of them could hide from the cops. “Well guess what? It didn’t work,” she said. “They’re still my girls. But when you take refuge in the Lord there is not a single thing that can get to you.”
The Christmas party wrapped up with another round of singing and prayer, and the women appeared grateful for the word and the gifts they had received.
“This is so much more than people realize,” Green said about the visit. “. We get to do it once a year and it is a privilege. We cannot touch them at all physically, so we have to touch them with our heart and with our words.”
Some 250 sacks containing Bibles, New Testaments, devotionals, pens, pencils and candies are handed out each year to the men and women in the treatment centers, and each facility holds its own Christmas party in advance of the holiday.
“It’s a joy,” Green said. “It’s really a joy.”
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