Christmas Village

It’s The Holiday Season… In Prison

We are smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. You can’t turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or go into any store without being reminded of this fact.

Occasionally, when I’m talking to Daniel Wozniak I will mention something fun I’m doing with my family, like going Christmas tree shopping, and then I immediately feel a little bad. I assume it must be so depressing to be reminded of the holidays when you are incarcerated.

Last year at this time, Daniel was being found guilty by a jury of his peers, and the topic of Christmas wasn’t in the forefront.

But this year is his first Christmas on death row, and he is living pretty far away from his family and friends. It’s also the first holiday season since Daniel’s father passed away.

This situation would get anyone down, and I was worried about my friend. I asked Daniel if it was OK for me to even broach the topic of how he is feeling around this time of the year, and he said he was fine with that. I told him I would come up with some questions so I could “interview” him during our next phone call.

The first thing I asked about was Daniel’s first Christmas incarcerated. I’ll be honest with you guys, I was expecting a tale of woe about the difficulties of that first year locked up at the Orange County Jail.

Nope.

Daniel’s First Christmas At The Orange County Jail

Daniel cheerfully told me about how he, “Raphly, and Doug” preceded to make a “little spread” for the other 28 inmates on their tier during their dayroom time. They made bowls of soup (ramen), with beans and Cheetos and crumbled up Sun Chips for the topping. The guards let them pass the food out to everyone in their cells. Daniel got to have a Christmas show on the television during food prep (the Jim Carey Grinch movie), and Ralphy led the tier in a song and then said a prayer.

I could tell by his voice that Daniel is still moved by the memory of making sure everyone on his tier got a good meal on Christmas.

That first Christmas wasn’t sad. Why, that first Christmas sounded glad.  

Making food for his fellow inmates became a tradition he continued each Christmas at the Orange County Jail. Leave it to Daniel (Mr. Glass Half Full) to manage to have fond memories of Christmas at County.

Daniel’s First Christmas On San Quentin’s Death Row

I asked Daniel about the general atmosphere behind bars during these weeks leading up to Christmas. For the most part, the inmates just ignore the holidays. As opposed to the OC Jail, at least San Quentin has special visiting days on holidays (even when the holiday doesn’t land on a regular visiting day). Other than that, it’s just like any other time of the year.

I can’t imagine trying to block out the holidays when every other television commercial shows a new car with a bow on it, or people baking pies, or children on Christmas morning happily playing with their recently unwrapped toys.

I guess when you’re incarcerated, you do your best to block out that sort of thing. For most of the inmates, the best part of the holidays is getting a good meal (traditional holiday fare) and watching football on Thanksgiving and basketball on Christmas.

At the OC Jail, there was one TV for each tier. Located in the day room, it wasn’t visible from all the cells.

When Daniel talked about “watching” football and basketball, that often meant just listening to the games and relying on the person in the dayroom to keep everyone else updated on the score.

This year he’s most pleased to have his own TV inside his cell. See, aside from football and basketball, Daniel really enjoys Christmas movies and specials, whereas most of the OC Jail prisoners had no interest in watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

I have numerous programs I need to watch every year or else it doesn’t feel like Christmas. They are (in no particular order):

  • A Christmas Story
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Elf
  • Miracle of 34th Street
  • Home Alone (only the first one)
  • The Year without a Santa Claus
  • The Grinch (animated – I do not need to watch that Jim Carey movie)
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Frosty the Snowman
  • The Santa Clause (only the first one).

 And two that aren’t for the whole family: 

  • An Always Sunny Christmas
  • The Trailer Park Boys Christmas Special.

This year Daniel has already watched Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, and his favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

What Daniel Misses

Of course, Daniel misses being with his family.

He spoke fondly of how they would pick up his grandma on Christmas eve and go to “vigil” at five o’clock (a vigil is a Catholic mass held on the evening before the event being celebrated. Mass on Christmas Eve would be the Christmas Vigil mass). Then they’d visit various aunt’s and uncle’s houses to eat and socialize, and end the night with midnight mass. When the family got home, he and his two brothers would each get to open one present.

Daniel’s mom visited him on Thanksgiving Day and will visit again over Christmas.

I just got approved to visit, so I’ll be doing that early in the new year.

Despite Daniel’s ability to put on a happy face, I asked him to tell me a tradition he misses about Christmas on the outside.

He told me about setting up little “villages” all around his house every year. The family custom started at his aunt’s and grandma’s houses. That is where Daniel apprenticed in the art of setting up these elaborate displays of moving parts, twinkling lights and snowy landscapes. He told me he got a kick out of people enjoying the moving ice skaters and miniature scenes of children waiting in line to see Santa.

Daniel seems to be doing fine, though. He’s been behind bars for seven Christmases now, and he’s used to it.

Perspective

The Herr and Kibuishi families have had seven Christmases without Sam and Julie. I’m sure they are not used to it, and never will be.

Every year I unpack ornaments my kids made when they were little; photos of them in Santa hats (and missing front teeth) that are glued into snowman picture frames. I smile when I pull the ornaments out of the box and reminisce about those Christmases years ago. Sometimes I even tear up a little. My kids are safe and sound. I have them.

When you get right down to it, Daniel’s family still has him, even if he is in San Quentin. Daniel can still celebrate the holidays with friends (even if they are also murderers). Sam’s and Julie’s families don’t get that luxury. They only have memories of Christmases past.

17 thoughts on “It’s The Holiday Season… In Prison”

  1. Great post. It’s got to be pretty sad to spend Christmas in custody. The saddest part is missing out on the whole holiday season, which includes a long list of traditions and pastimes. I would think Christmas is less noticed in prison, since prisons are more institutionalized and distant from the real world. I was surprised you didn’t mention that Daniel’s brother Tim cut a deal and pled without having to serve any jail time according to the OCreg. Around this time of year, I enjoy most all the Christmas songs and Christmas movies. My favorites are Home Alone 1, Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Grinch (cartoon), and Christmas Story. Merry Christmas to all the readers and I hope everything has a very prosperous New Years! This will be a good new years with a Trump taking the presidency and cleaning up a lot of this country’s issues. Merry Chrismas!!!!!

    1. Sorry it took so long to approve and reply to comments. The holidays can be a very busy time of the year.
      Charlie Brown Christmas! I forgot to list that one. That’s a great one. Thank you for the comments. Ironically, Tim Wozniak is back in jail right now on a completely unrelated charge. As far as Tim cutting a deal, Daniel was satisfied with that outcome.

  2. Ugh. It’s 445am and because of your blog, I haven’t gone to bed lol :P Been reading the whole thing, youre a great writer, and after going to the start, I appreciate that you acknowledge the victims as you do never forgetting them. I too am a true crime addict (clearly… ) and love the honesty you carry out in your blogs as well. Keep it up! I look forward to reading you again :)

  3. It’s so clear from reading many comments on your posts that people don’t seem to read the very end of each one! You always point out the victims and the continuing plight their families are forced to live with because of Daniel’s callous acts. Your blog here is a unique bit of journalism that reports a quite unique perspective on the real human side of a person who somehow actually went through with heinous acts we would all like to believe we aren’t capable of committing. For the most part, we probably aren’t but I’m not so pompous as to think I couldn’t be influenced by my circumstances; yet I trust my moral compass would never allow me to justify bringing harm to another for personal gain. So I wonder, muse, and ponder and what ticks inside the psyche of a human who can do such a thing. For that reason, cases such as this fascinate me. You aren’t friends with that part of Daniel, you are friends with the “normal” guy which I’m sure is mostly what he’s made of, so to speak. I guess some folks just don’t appreciate that what he did is actually far, far different than those whose crimes are committed for the mere sake of the thrill they receive from committing acts of torture and murder. I’ve never seen you express any emotion from Daniel except sorrow for what he did. It is for that fact that Daniel’s case is so intriguing-he’s not some sick-minded sociopath. He is, in fact, a pretty normal guy. Oh, to be sure, what he did was awful! Can’t excuse it! Don’t think came up with all that scheme by himself either. Whether that is ever proven in court will remain to be seen but I have my theories-bet you do too! Please accept my sincerest thanks to you for writing and to Daniel for sharing. I understand why you do it and why you are his friend. I also understand how your heart goes out the the families of the victims. What you are able to do journalistically can’t be easy. Merry Christmas, God Bless, and keep writing girlfriend! You amaze me!

    1. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comments and kind words. Your statement about being friends with the normal side of Daniel is completely spot on. Daniel is very remorseful for his crime. I know not everyone believes that. And, of course, his remorse doesn’t change what he did. So many people have suffered because of Daniel’s acts, and I never forget that.

  4. Hello, Anonymous. Now that Daniel’s fate has more or less been sealed, and the only event still awaiting its resolution is Rachel’s trial, I think it’s high time that you “expose” yourself. After all, I have never hidden my name during this entire period and I think you should do the same. What harm could possibly result from divulging your name? And if you ever get around to writing and publishing a book about this horrid afair, the world will know your name anyway. So how about it?

    1. I’ll have to ask my husband his opinion on this. There are a lot of comments that I don’t approve on the blog. That includes comments that have actually threatened my children. Yup. You read that right. I have a one of a kind name, so I worry a bit about the crazies.

      I have thought a lot about how I’ll need to handle this situation when the book comes out, but I haven’t decided what to do yet.

  5. Just out of curiosity, and I don’t mean to damper the holiday spirit, but is Daniel aware that voters in California approved of a major that, after going through some legal hurdles, will allow for quicker executions to take place?

  6. How can you visit this monster? We don’t want to hear about how he likes to mash up Fritos or Cheetos. This sociopath murdered two wonderful people. This subhuman piece of garbage needs to be executed so we all can have some peace.

    1. It’s good that you have the freedom to not read my blog, and those folks who are interested in the Cheetos can read it.

  7. I’m an ex inmate that has spent several holidays including Christmas.. Myself I just remember the good ones and that’s all I can do.. I can tell it’s painful being away from family and friends during the holidays and it’s been times when all I wanted to do was cry.. But I did this to myself and I know one day I will have a joyous Christmas outside..At times the holidays doesn’t even bother me I’m so use to them coming and going..The best part is I’ve been home 8 years now and that part of my life is over..I’ve jailed with women that has done some horrific things but I can’t speak for them and their not all that bad just poor judgement and drugs played a serious part as well… I’m human and I remember the things I love about Christmas plus my last name is Rudolph so you know my favorite Christmas program… Ha ha…

    1. I bet you could write a book yourself. :)

      Thank you for the reminder that we are all human, and make mistakes. “Poor judgement and drugs” were part of Daniel’s problems as well (even though that didn’t come out in his trial). Those things don’t excuse what he did. Nothing does. And he will pay for the rest of his life for his mistakes.

      But he has a “rest of his life,” and Sam and Julie do not.

  8. I have mixed feelings on this blog. Obviously people are reading it and interested, and you’ve had existential crises. And I’m no one to judge. But I can’t help feel that in some way you’re getting….some kind of satisfaction/attention out of being “friends” with this guy who murdered two innocent people. I mean way early on you did mention wanting to be the “next Truman Capote” and I suppose he did that, too. But yeah something just feels icky and makes me cringe. Like it’s a badge of honor you have for you in that he’s your “friend.” I agree that he’s likely a sociopath. Of course he will write you back, he’s bored. And he probably was amused when he heard you were doing a blog; now he has a forum for his thoughts knowing people care about mashing up his Cheetos or not (lol or whatever another commentator said). It’s good that you acknowledge the victims, but you’re also stroking his ego, the ego of someone who snuffed out the lives of two young people for no good reason (not to mention throwing some poor 17-year-old under the bus via the ATM card).

    Anyway I can’t….really cast stones and I’ve done questionable things myself and I also have some interest in criminals and all that, sympathy for some, don’t feel it’s our place to judge their actions, because that’s God’s place…and everyone has a story, nature or nurture. Even you, too. It makes me cringe that you’re likely doing this for some kind of validation, too, but I don’t know you’re life either, so, sorry. I’m not really sure what I’m saying but …yeah. Something about this blog is a little cringeworthy and does seem to be still kind of disrespecting the murder victims.

    (I stumbled here after watching 20/20 on the case. This is one of the first pages that pops up when you Google his name, as I’m sure you know. I initially thought you had known him and were good friends with him beforeHAND, and were thus trying to grapple with that conflict of who you thought he was versus the shock of knowing what he’s done. But no, you were interested in him only after you realized he was in jail …seemingly so you could have a blog about being friends with a murderer…? Hence the exploitative undertone.)

    In any case….peace and all to everyone and to all a good night. Or something.

    1. Daniel gets to read the blog after it has been posted, he doesn’t have any say in what I write. Except for the recent “letter to the readers” post, the thoughts are all mine.

      I understand that people have different opinions about this project, thank you for taking the time to read the blog and leave a comment. The next post is all about me…so maybe you’ll get some of your questions answered.

  9. If he was sad over the holidays, and surely he will be in the future, maybe he should have thought about that before he committed such a heinous crime or crimes.

    Whether anyone else was behind or complicit in the crimes he committed, he pulled the triggers and cut up Sam. He had that choice, whether to do it or not, and he chose to commit these crimes. He is where he deserves to be.

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