I am thankful that on my 33rd Thanksgiving in prison, I’ll be allowed an early shower. Thankful to have gotten an extra blanket, which was issued late and will be retrieved early, but keeps me warm for now. Thankful that as I walk out into the cold November rain, I don’t have to wear the plastic orange Crocs that the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) issues to prisoners deemed unfit for work due to age or disability. Shoes should not have so many holes.
Thankful for the boots I’ve been allowed to keep. For their leather tongues, upon which I sharpen the last of the disposable razor blades stashed away four years ago. Thankful to not have joined the scores of prisoners who swallowed them or took them to a vein before GDC eventually stopped giving them to us.
Thankful for the lessons learned in the COVID-19 pandemic. Left alone here for months on end, there were situations we prisoners really did handle as a community. Thankful that as the absence of staff allows suicides and homicides to rise, it at least allows contraband prices to go down. At times this alone has brought down the level of violence, with tempers less strained by deprivation. Thankful for an improved drug supply, which is to say that the strips of paper coated with insecticides and such seem to be better-tolerated than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.
Thankful for a prison system in bad enough shape for our so-called health care provider to abandon its nine-year contract seven years early. The next iteration will probably have most of the same staff, but there is always the hope a retired doctor who once practiced actual medicine will wander in.
Thankful that our Thanksgiving meal has grown mercifully smaller over the years.
Thankful that through it all, the food service staff did keep showing up for their shifts. The food is terrible. Starvation is worse.
Thankful that our Thanksgiving meal has grown mercifully smaller over the years. It used to be a proper feast with an actual turkey, the meat pulled from the bone and given a softball-sized dollop of mashed potatoes. Real giblet gravy. Pumpkin pie. That was a meal to expand a prisoner’s shrunken belly, and expanded it would remain after our portions were shrunk back down. Over the years the one big meal had come to feel cruel, knowing three days of hunger pangs would follow.
These days, the centerpiece of each tray is a large roll split in half, each side slathered in gravy and dressing. Slap one side on a slice of turkey loaf, add a sporkful of mashed green peas, another of the curiously lumpy instant potatoes, cap it with the other side and some cranberry sauce to be slurped up like soup on your way out.
After three decades of doing prison analog, getting online was like being rescued from a desert island.
Thankful for WiFi! No one’s given us any, but many people in prison find their way onto the internet nonetheless. I’m thankful for the person who, about two years ago, encouraged me to take the plunge.
After three decades of doing prison analog, getting online was like being rescued from a desert island. Suddenly, I could Google law citations. I could send my writing to editors by email. I could look up dear old friends on Facebook. There are no phone books in prison; if you didn’t have someone’s number memorized at the time of your arrest, they were lost. Without any connection to the outside world, many of us long-timers live as ghosts.
Now, social media shows me that my friends’ children have become adults. I watch them have children of their own; go into the military; go to prison. I’m thankful when I’m not called to the visit room, to witness the families on their second generation of children who grow up visiting their parents here.
Thankful to have had parents who kept me fed and clothed, with a roof over my head and nothing required of me but my share of the chores. Thankful enough years have passed that I now strain to remember whose funerals I missed. No longer does the sharp pain of loss greet me upon waking each morning. With everyone gone, that particular pain is one I’ll never have to endure again. Thankful like when the last tooth has been pulled.
Any day now, GDC will succeed in kicking us all offline and make ghosts of us once more. Until that time, I try think of it like the blankets—late to arrive and taken from us too soon, but nice for however long it lasts.
Photograph via Pennsylvania Department of Corrections