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.
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
- 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.
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.