For Prisoners, Christmas Shopping Itself Is the Gift

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Inmate 384657 lined up with the other women of G Unit and filed past paper candy canes decorating a cinder-block wall. The body that filled out her prison blues was compact and wide-shouldered. Her hands and neck were streaked with burn scars; a blurred blue wrist tattoo read "RIP Mollie J." Her hair was swept into an updo fancy enough for a prom.

She approached a folding table where a smiling volunteer sat with a pen and a checklist.


"Johnson," the inmate replied.

"Room 5?"

"Room 5, yes ma'am."

The volunteer handed over a Bible tract and a $125 gift card. And with that, Lavonia Johnson — a 30-year-old convicted murderer and mother of four — began her Christmas shopping at the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center.

The tables spread out in the prison gym were crammed: For the little ones, there were pink princess vanity sets and oversized plastic cars. For teenagers, off-brand electronics, costume jewelry and trendy cologne. The gift displays were arranged like stores in a mall — there was even a "food court," with sweets from the kitchens of Tennessee church ladies.

Over three days last week, the 400 women incarcerated here carried on much like patrons at any suburban Wal-Mart as they browsed the merchandise, all of it donated by Memphis churches and businesses. They hoisted boxes and read fine print, checking for small parts, age appropriateness, the need for batteries. And they did their best to look good, wearing lip gloss and eye shadow applied by inmates in the prison cosmetology program.

Amid the bustle, Alfretta Young, who is serving a 12-year sentence for dealing cocaine, clutched a handful of teddy bears to her chest. She knew the gifts weren't quite right for her three girls, ages 13, 15 and 16. But she couldn't help herself.

"I wish they were still young," she said. "When they get into high school, they ain't really into dolls no more."

This is the second year inmates here have acted out their strange and poignant pantomime of the holiday shopping rush. Corrections officials say it is one small way to strengthen the fragile connection between convicts and their children. It is also an acknowledgment that the youngsters need their mothers — no matter what those mothers may have done.

"It's important for the children to get a personal gift . . . a gift that their mother actually picked out," said Alma Harris, the prison chaplain. "Because the children are doing time too. They may not be behind bars, but they're doing time."

Celebrating the holidays with a parent incarcerated is a reality that will affect more U.S. families this year than ever. A study released in February by the Pew Center on the States found that for the first time, more than 1 in every 100 U.S. adults was locked away. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of female prisoners in the United States has increased 50 percent since 1990. Three-quarters of those are mothers; two-thirds have children under 18.

Harris, a 50-year-old mother of three, was the catalyst for the program at Luttrell, a grim complex of concrete buildings 20 miles from downtown Memphis. In years past, the chaplain would go to McDonald's around Christmastime and buy cheeseburgers for the inmates. But the burgers always came back cold.

"I said, 'Next year we need to do something different,' " Harris recalled. "Why can't they do a little shopping just like I do? Just so they could think about somebody besides themselves?"

Harris cooked up the prison shopping concept with Pat Culp, founder of Women Empowered to Become Self-Sufficient Inc., a volunteer group that has been working in the Luttrell prison for years. The group tries to give incarcerated women a bit of their dignity back, hosting events behind bars, including tea parties — replete with finger sandwiches — and Christian self-empowerment classes.

At Christmastime, the group solicits donations and sets up the holiday gift store. After three days of shopping, there is a party for the mothers and children. The gym is tricked out with colored paper and decorations; the kids open their presents, run around and accept all of the hugs they can stand. (During a typical visitation session, parents can embrace their children only when they enter and leave.)

Youngsters who cannot attend the party have their presents wrapped and shipped by volunteers. The inmates, who earn less than 50 cents an hour working in the prison, must provide the postage.

"We want them to be responsible," Harris said. "This is something to help them say, 'I think I can do better.' "

Johnson and the women of G Unit were the first group scheduled to shop. Before the inmates' arrival, the volunteers staffing the tables held a quick planning meeting.

"Be sure that you watch everything — that you're watchful of the merchandise on your table," volunteer Nicole Taylor said. "They can look, but they're not allowed to touch unless they're about to buy, especially the electronics and the jewelry."

A boom box pumped out "Silent Night." The women began filling the gym. They had two hours to shop. Each woman picked up a gift card, its value determined by the number of children she had — generally, $25 a child. The gifts were marked with handmade price tags; with each "purchase," a volunteer scribbled the new value on the back of the gift card.

Johnson made a beeline for the electronics, grabbing a portable CD player for her 9-year-old boy. Next, she chose a baby doll for her 4-year-old girl. There were still two more kids she needed to shop for — the unruly 6-year-old she calls Little Man and another brother half his age.

She wondered if these were the things they really wanted. Johnson's kids live three hours away with her mother, and they rarely visit.

So she does her mothering via pay phone. The conversations give her images of her children's lives in broad brush strokes: She knows her oldest has a girlfriend — "puppy love," she said, smiling — and she knows Little Man has been getting in trouble. But the calls don't help her guess their unspoken Christmas wishes.

When she was free, she used to take them to Toys R Us, where she could watch for what made their eyes light up.

Johnson said she grew up around drug dealers and dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. When she was an infant, much of her body was burned in a bathing accident. She has a few good Christmas memories, like the Easy-Bake Oven her mother got for her one year. She remembers how they baked cookies together.

She entered the Tennessee prison system in December 2004, sentenced to 20 years for aggravated robbery and second-degree murder. She declined to discuss the details of the crime, other than to say that her case was on appeal and that she was trying to put it behind her. She's embraced religion and taken parenting classes and is working on her GED.

"I know I'm going to be a better mom," she said.

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The next day, Johnson's mother, Leslie, said in a phone interview that the children wanted iPods and Game Boys — expensive stuff she couldn't afford. She was home with them full time, without a job. She had just sent a package to the prison with their pictures and hand-drawn notes.

Leslie Johnson will cook chicken and mac and cheese and collard greens for Christmas. The kids will open their presents and go to their cousins' house. They might also cry, she said.

"They want to know why their mama's not here, why she can't come home," she said.

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Lavonia Johnson plans to call on Christmas Day and ask her kids how they liked their loot.

Like every inmate, she will receive two gift bags from the Tennessee Department of Correction. One will contain an apple, two tangerines, a banana and a pack of mints. In the other: toothpaste, soap and a pair of tube socks.

"It's a really sad place to be on Christmas," Johnson said. "It feels like you did take your life for granted."

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