Christmas inside the chapel at San Quentin. The words "CDCR Prisoner" can be seen on the back of the men's shirts.
Christmas Eve mass at San Quentin State Prison in 2016. (Eddie Herena)

When you think of the holidays in a prison, you might imagine it’s like a scene out of “Orange is the New Black” or some B-grade prison movie. That’s probably a close approximation. For many, Christmas usually means getting an extra visiting day if you have a family that is willing to make the trek just to spend a few hours inside a prison with you in a drab visiting room with little cheer except a generic Christmas tree in a corner. 

For good and bad reasons, I never was part of that. 

I grew up in a Chinese household. We weren’t one of those families who tried to assimilate by putting up holiday lights and a Christmas tree with presents underneath. We were one of those families that turned off the lights in the house, so the carolers don’t come by. As a kid, the holidays meant one thing: a trip to Vegas. 

My family never cooked turkey or ham nor did I get presents. We just loaded up the car and drove four hours to Vegas. 

I never had my family come see me during the holidays, and I’m glad that they never had to get searched by officers on Christmas Day. It would have been hard to say good-bye and watch them go back to their lives while they left me to ingest what passed as a holiday meal in Chow Hall. 

But people adapt to our environments, and that’s especially true when you’re incarcerated. We create our own holiday traditions. 

At San Quentin there were open mics with the college program, and volunteers from the community would come inside and sing Christmas carols in the buildings. We also enjoyed spreads with the homies, where we’d bond over homemade burritos, rice bowls and desserts. Many of us would save up from our jobs and buy some extra food. Those with families, who bought them lots of snacks during visitation, passed them out to the men who weren’t as fortunate. 

Holidays. Family. Food. Bonding. Couldn’t get better than that, right? 

The holiday meal they will get this year is anyone’s guess. In the past, we were usually served a somewhat warm meal with a real slice of turkey and the fixings, but with a lockdown in place, every meal has been served two hours too late and colder than the San Francisco fog. 

Is there a holiday custom for someone who spent 16 years in prison?

This year, I’m spending my first Christmas in 16 years as a free man, but because of the pandemic, I am again separated from my family. I feel the same loneliness I felt inside, but it’s by choice. 

I should feel happy being out of prison, but I miss the people there who had been my family all these years. I miss our prison traditions, and it’s tough knowing that my family in San Quentin is without their families too. They can’t even go outside to see the night sky and take a breath of fresh air.

I still have my formerly incarcerated family out here, but we have yet to create a tradition during pandemic times. Is there a custom for someone who spent 16 years in prison coming back to a different world order? Zoom carols perhaps? Text with the fam? Facetime with my partner? Technology—it lets us stay in touch yet simultaneously makes us feel so alone.

Everyday I am reminded of my life inside. Should I take off and go to Vegas to relive my childhood and find some meaning there? Should I cook a meal “prison style” just to reminisce? Happiness and the holidays are supposed to be synonymous right? 

It’s hard to be happy (is anyone happy in these times?), so I choose this season to focus on giving thanks.

I’m thankful for not having to worry about them running out of turkey or shoving it inside of me in ten minutes in case the guard tells me to leave, so others can sit down. I’m thankful not to have to sit on a metal seat. 

I’m also grateful to everyone, who thought I could come back out to society and have a second chance at life. I thank my fellow citizens for realizing the mistake of the last four years. 

Thanks also to those who continue to fight for the underdog. Thanks to those who believe that you shouldn’t get pulled over just because you are born a certain color. Thanks to those in uniform, who actually believe in peace and not abusing the law. Thanks to those who save life every day, the doctors and nurses who risk their lives and go to work leaving their loved ones behind. 

Thanks to those inside and their families outside who have to endure the separation of not seeing each other. 

I also choose to give to those who are not as fortunate as me, those who are incarcerated, locked up physically and inside their minds. 

This holiday season, I feel as uncertain as I did on my first holiday inside. I don’t know what my life will be like, what traditions will be in my future, and who and what I am leaving behind. 

Vegas is only six hours away (pending parole approval).

Jonathan Chiu is a formerly incarcerated citizen who paroled from San Quentin State Prison on May 1, 2020. He has been part of the San Quentin News since 2015 as the layout designer and crossword designer for both the newspaper and San Quentin’s Wall City magazine. He also often helps with the layout for Street Spirit.