Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about circulating kindness. This story has been on my mind. It’s longer than usual, but please read it all:
I drove to the minimum security prison, far out in the desert, at the end of the only road in those parts.
When I arrived in the visitors’ yard this November day, the sergeant on duty welcomed me. He’d seen me regularly here for some months. Soon Dave, my inmate host for this visit, came onto the yard. We sat at a concrete picnic table under a thatched ramada. Dave began to talk about the last meeting of an inmate growth group.
He said the staff facilitator had asked the men, “What’s the hardest thing for you during the holidays?” Answers had varied, my host reported, but one had stuck in his mind: Jason’s (not his real name). Jason had killed someone when he was nineteen. He’d been sentenced to life and had already done twenty-nine years in prison. By law, he’d be eligible for parole, but he must have a plan, a place to go. However, for the last twenty-five of those years, Jason had had no contact with the outside world—family and everyone he’d known had abandoned him. He had a son somewhere whom he would never know. No one had sent a card or a note.
So, when Jason began to answer the facilitator’s question, everyone expected him to say something about his family. But, gripping one hand with the other, he murmured, “The hardest thing is never having anything to give away.”
I gasped. This I could not ignore.
As I left the prison yard that day, I spoke to the sergeant, even though I knew the rule: no inmate could receive packages unless the sender was on that inmate’s visiting list. Since I would never meet Jason, I couldn’t be on his list—a circle of impossibility. I begged the officer to make a single exception for him.
“It’s for Christmas,” I urged. I pleaded. I promised, “never a second time.” Maybe because the authorities knew me, more likely because they knew Jason, they made the exception.
So I rallied a couple friends and went shopping, the prison’s list of permitted items in hand. We sent Jason the maximum allowed, twenty-five pounds of little things: chocolate bars, wrapped fruits, packaged nuts, small packaged stuffed animals, and a few useful items they couldn’t get inside.
Then, we waited. I wondered how he’d responded–what happened? Not until mid-January did I get back to the prison and hear the story. Dave, again my inmate host, delighted in telling me.
Several days before Christmas, other inmates told Jason he had a package in the prison post office. Jason didn’t believe it. After all, for twenty five years, nothing had come for him. He got angry at them for trifling with his emotions and leapt at them. They fended him off, laughing, avoiding a fight. They persisted for half an hour before they convinced him to walk down to the post office.
Jason returned to the dorm, hugging his twenty-five pound box in both arms. He carried it inside, set it in his open steel cabinet and sat down on the foot of his cot, facing it. He sat there, staring at that box, for two hours.
Then he set the box on his cot. He tore off the tape. He took out the dozens of small items, examined each one as if he’d never seen such a thing. After twenty five years of being forgotten by the outside world, he took his time, fondling each item. He lined them all up by category in his cabinet. Then he locked the cabinet and forbade anyone to come near it.
Christmas morning came. After count, the old lifer tucked one small, tan stuffed bear into the center of his own pillow. He savored one chocolate bar. Then, after so many years, all the rest of his twenty-five pounds of goodies, Jason gave away to his friends.