Christmas in the Big House

Out of Stillwater's 1,300 or so inmates, 80 attended this year's holiday service, which Chaplain Steve Hokonson calls "pretty good": "You're talking Monday evening. Monday Night Football--there's a little bit of competition there."

This year more than 5,200 adults will spend their holidays in one of Minnesota's eight correctional facilities. According to recent statistics, the majority of those incarcerated here are single white Catholic and Baptist men, average age 32. The top three offenses committed are, in order, criminal sexual conduct, homicide, and assault. During their stay, which averages 43.4 months, inmates spend seven hours a day making road-construction products, door signs written in Braille, award plaques, patio furniture, and office accessories. If they wish, they may enroll in chemical-dependency programs, educational programs, and intra-institutional sports leagues.

The prison population has been increasing steadily over the past 20 years; if this trend continues, it wouldn't be too difficult to imagine a day when the majority of American families would have at least one relative spending Christmas in prison.

In and out of prison for theft since 1968 ("I've been to every Minnesota state prison except for the women's prison in Shakopee--not that I didn't try!"), Gale Rachuy has spent more Christmases behind bars than in front of them. "It's funny in a sad way," Rachuy says during a recent interview at his current domicile, Moose Lake. "I can remember back to the early '70s when there were 700 people in prison in Stillwater, which is one half of what it is today. The more people that come in, the tighter it gets."

After a bit of goading, Rachuy talks about his favorite Christmas in prison, back in 1974 when indeed, regulations and rules seemed to be less strict. "One night around Christmas, we had an evening put on by 'Songs Incarcerated,' which is what they called the institution musicians. They would invite the public in, too, and they could listen for free.

"This night, half of the institution was drunk. They had made a batch of hooch by stealing potatoes and yeast out of the kitchen, putting plastic liners in the garbage cans, and filling them with yeast and sugar. Then they would bring it down to the bands in one-gallon mayonnaise jars stuck inside the guitar cases. It tasted really bad, but it worked." Rubbing his hands together, Rachuy laughs. "That was the most fun I think we ever saw in prison. The cops in the institution squad didn't bother anybody, we got to raise a little hell, and nobody got hurt. Man, it was fun."

It's hard to imagine anything like that taking place today. Not that Rachuy thinks it should. "For the past few years," he says, "they have been jerking out a lot of privileges that we'd been given over the years, but they still try to do it humanely. Frank Wood, the former commissioner's philosophy always was that you should treat people in prisons the way that you would treat your father, your brother, or your son, because someday they could end up here."

Mostly this year, Rachuy and hundreds of other inmates will try hard to forget Christmas altogether. "You work, you get cut early, and you get locked in your cells by 6 o'clock so the guards can go home, which is nice for them...But I have two grandchildren, you know, and it's a bummer sitting in jail. Rarely do you hear inmates saying, 'Merry Christmas.' They might say it to the staff who actually get to go see their family, but inmate to inmate, it usually doesn't get said. It's a bad time of year."

The last time Rachuy was home for Christmas was when he escaped from Stillwater eight years ago. He jumped out of a car during transport and ran as fast as he could. Eventually, he got "finked out," but not before he got to spend a month-- including Christmas--with his family. "I knew that they were going to be watching my wife's house, so as soon as I escaped," Rachuy confides, "I stopped at a pay phone and told her to meet me at a Holiday Inn. She and the kids came over and we went and cut a tree down in the woods. See, I logged for a living. I guess doing that was stealing. Then we went to a discount store and got decorations and trimmed the tree in our hotel room. It was really great."

That Rachuy's escape saddled him with additional jail time doesn't strike him as ironic. "I got to see my family, including my kid, who loves to eat doughnuts and cigarette butts. He eats everything. We named him piglet," says the proud father. "When he got bigger, we called him hoggy. He's a great little kid. And I miss him.

"Stay out of trouble, and don't come to jail."

Over at the Stillwater Correctional Facility, Chaplain Supervisor Steve Hokonson points to a black and white flier that hangs behind the candy machines in the far corner of the visitors' waiting room. It reads, "Greetings from All the Psychology and Religious Services Staff." "See," says Chaplain Hokonson, "there [are] things to indicate that it is the holiday season."

While such examples only confirm that holidays in prison are, as Rachuy would say, 'a bummer,' Hokonson works very hard to make sure that inmates' children don't feel forgotten. "We have two programs for inmates' children. Inmates can sign up to have toys bought for their children by area churches. The people in the churches contact the parents and find out what kinds of gifts are appropriate and then they furnish the gifts. In the other program, run by the Salvation Army, inmates can choose the toy themselves. Best of all, they can write on the greeting card, 'To Joe Joe, from Daddy,' and that gets mailed directly to the child at their home. That way, there is no indication that the gift is coming from anybody other than Dad. This year, about 250 packages were sent from Stillwater."

At Stillwater, inmates also have the option of attending a program sponsored by the Salvation Army. "They come in with their musical instruments and sing Christmas carols and have a service," Hokonson explains. "They always bring gifts for the inmates; this year, it was a bag filled with lotion, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, and some other personal-hygiene items." Out of the 1,300 or so inmates, 80 attended this year's service, which Hokonson calls "pretty good."

"You're talking Monday evening," he says. "Monday Night Football-- there's a little bit of competition there, unfortunately."

In addition to the service, inmates can also look forward to new calendars. "We are very grateful to Brown and Bigelow, which for years have provided us with beautiful, beautiful calendars," says Hokonson. "They donate large, scenic calendars, sports-car calendars, all kinds of calendars, which we pass out to the inmates at Christmas time.

"Obviously, calendars in prisons are important things."

And for dinner? This year the menu on Christmas day at Stillwater includes roast beef, whipped potatoes, gravy, green beans and cheesecake. The trimmings, or lack of them, don't mean so very much in Hokonson's eyes. "When it comes right down to the holidays," he says, "I think that it's very much like it is on the outside. Christmas is a stressful time whether you're on the inside or outside, although it's probably more stressful inside because of the isolation."

This year, Hokonson plans to hold a prayer vigil outside of the prison for whoever wants to come (except for, obviously, the prisoners). The purpose of the vigil, he explains, is "to remind all of us, inside and out, that our purpose here is to bring peace to the conflicts that separate us."

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