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.


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.


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.

What’s Taking So Long: The Motion Commotion

When I visited Daniel on Friday,  September 11,  he had a large folder with him inside his “visiting cell.”

I knew what it was as soon as I saw it.  We’d talked about it… I’d read about it…

This was the 754-page motion that Daniel’s lawyer, public defender Scott Sanders, had filed on Wednesday, August 26, 2015.

I hadn’t been able to get hold of the motion myself.  Most of my information about it came from Daniel.  He even held up some of the pages — items he found particularly important — to the glass so I could read them.

It’s difficult to get a full picture that way.

I still thought I should write a post about the motion… as much as I knew.  And when I was searching the net to confirm the exact number of pages, lo and behold, I came across a Voice of OC article  with a link to the entire document!

I won’t lie to you and say that I have read all 754 pages.  Not yet, anyway. However, I did go through the table of contents and found all the “chapters” that specifically mentioned Daniel and his case.

Even though every page has “Motion to dismiss – Wozniak” at the bottom, there really wasn’t that much relating specifically to his case.  Don’t quote me on this, but I’d say only about 20% of the over 700 pages mentioned his case specifically.

Scott Sanders’ Claims

Here is an “idiot’s guide” to this motion (from my understanding):

  • There has been corruption in the Orange County Judicial system for the past 30 years.
  • The motion gives NUMEROUS examples of such corruption.
  • The accusations state that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriffs Department have surreptitiously engaged certain inmates to work as jail informants to learn information about other inmates.  Therefore, inmates are being questioned without their knowledge or the assistance of their lawyers.
  • Daniel was purposefully placed in an area of the jail so that an informant would have access to him.
  • The informant was asking specific questions and working directly with police in order to reduce his own sentence (a third strike).
  • This informant had been working with the police for years and had been used in numerous other cases.
  • Daniel’s rights, and the rights of numerous other accused, have been violated by the OCDA and the police.
  • It also goes into a bunch of stuff about Daniel’s appearance on the MSNBC show LockUp.
  • The OCSD is accused of leading the show’s producers toward Daniel specifically and that Daniel’s appearance on the show could negatively influence how he will be seen by future jurors.
  • Mostly the motion contains copious amounts of documentation supporting the many accusations of corruption

This might all sound a bit monotonous, but it’s causing huge ripples in Orange County, where deals are being made and sentences are being shortened in order for the DA’s office keep its bad behavior swept under a rug.

Public defender Scott Sanders actually managed to get the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office removed from another one of his high profile cases, that of Scott Evans Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to the deadliest mass killing in Orange County history.  Dekraai gunned down eight people in a Seal Beach hair salon.

The Attorney General’s Office has appealed the ruling, and the eventual decision could decide if Dekraai will be sentenced to the death penalty.

So, what’s the point of all this?  What does it have to do specifically with Daniel’s case?

If you ask DA Matt Murphy or victim’s father, Steve Herr, they will say that none of this should be holding up Daniel’s trial.   Murphy claims that the jailhouse informant’s testimony won’t be used against Daniel, so that part is a moot point.

If that’s the case, why has Daniel been in and out of the courtroom repeatedly in the past five years, but still no trial?

What do you think? Do you see this as a violation of Daniel’s basic rights?

How does Daniel himself feel about this massive motion and how it relates to his own future?

I’ll have more information for you, and some quotes and thoughts on the matter from Daniel, in the next post.

Jail Mail, Snail Mail

I grew up in a time before emails, cell phones or texting. I called my high school friends using a land line (also just known as “the phone” back then). I sent people letters and got excited when they wrote back.

Now, I text. I email. I am completely dependent on the electronic world of instant contact.  The common question with friends my age is “how did we survive before..?”

We used to wait, that’s how.  Just like the Arcade Fire song by that name, people had to wait to communicate.

If your family moved you to a different town, then you and your friends wrote letters. Sometimes you even included pictures you’d taken with your 35mm camera and then had developed at a twenty-four hour Kodak kiosk in the mall parking lot.

Pictures were special.

Not so much anymore. I don’t even think twice about texting a picture of whatever random thing interests me…

“Hey check out this cute picture of my dog in his new sweater!”

“I made a tater-tot casserole. Not too shabby, right?”

“Here’s me drinking a smoothie! #IloveJambaJuice”

Now I’m friends with an inmate. Mail, both sending and receiving, is an extremely important aspect of his life… and pictures mean the world to them.

It must be a small escape from the tiny metal and concrete existence: a smiling face holding a smoothie and reminding them of a normal life.

I try to send something in the mail to Daniel every week. The process of sending and receiving “jail mail” can be much more complicated than a lay person might imagine.

contents_not_acceptedIt wasn’t long after we’d been writing back and forth that one of my letters was returned to me with “Contents Not Accepted” stamped all over the front and back.

Inside the envelope, which had been opened and then Scotch-taped closed again, was the greeting card I’d attempted to send to Daniel and an informative guide (with which I had clearly not abided) to sending mail to inmates.

Click for larger view.

It turns out that my “I’m thinking about you and hope you’re having a nice day,” card broke the infamous “BLACK PAPER NOT ALLOWED” rule.

Some of the mail rules are logical.  I get it; you don’t want me to send Daniel weapons or copies of Hustler magazine.  Ok.   Fair enough.

It’s hilarious that the rules specify “female nipples.”  How would a deputy know if a close up nip pic was of a male or a female, or even a human, for that matter?  The inmates see male nipples regularly, so I guess that’s why only the female ones are dangerous.

Why no black paper?  I ended up sending Daniel a photograph of the same card.  That made it through.  Why?

Daniel has told me that some deputies are easier going than others.  The newer ones are stricter with the rules.

I couldn’t help feeling bad for inmates who have young children. Nothing drawn in crayon or marker.   No glitter or glue.

I had another piece of mail returned because I wrote the address with a Sharpie marker.

You know, until I became friends with Daniel, I only bought postage stamps at Christmas time.   I’ve discovered that the USPS has some really cool stamps. Miles Davis stamps.  Barnum and Bailey vintage circus stamps.  Emancipation Proclamation stamps.

I really do try to follow the mail rules.  I find it kind of embarrassing when items get sent back.  Maybe my mail carrier knows about the nipple rule and wonders what kind of contraband I’m sending.  I envision myself chasing after the truck, waving the rejected envelope and yelling, “It was the black paper!”

Even though I know I’m not the only person writing to Daniel, I can’t help worrying that sometimes it might be my fault if he doesn’t get any mail.  As is, he generally sends three or four letters to my one.

And his letters are great!  My favorites include scripts of conversations Daniel’s had with guards and other prisoners, newspaper articles about his own case with penciled comments in the margins, and “kites.”

Yes, I will share some of the best ones with you in future posts.

I try to send him mail that will make him smile.  I include random pictures that entertain me:

A baby turtle on a human thumb.
My dog with his new tequila-bottle shaped chew toy (Dog Julio).
The heavy metal guitar guy from the new Mad Max movie (with flames shooting out of the guitar neck!)

My letters are mostly about my daily life.  You’d be amazed at how interesting a trip to the supermarket can be when you spend twenty three hours a day in a cell.  At least that’s what Daniel tells me.

Sometimes I worry that my stories might be silly compared to his life.

“Yes, there was a long line at Starbucks!”

Free People Problems.

Recently, Daniel asked me for the lyrics to three James Bond songs because someone at the OC jail claimed he could sing these songs if only he had the lyrics.

Sometimes I send “texts.”  Instead of actually sending messages to him throughout a day, I’ll put them in a document and then print it out.

I’ve even sent him print outs of comments left on this blog and the Facebook page.

I use up a lot more printer ink now, but it’s worth it.  Getting letters from me makes Daniel happy.  It improves his day.  It helps him take a mental break from his reality.

And I get to look forward to the mail again.

My Friend’s Name is Daniel

Game changer time.
It’s time to name names.Daniel Patrick Wozniak, for example.

Go ahead, Google it, I’ll wait.
That’s right folks. Bye bye pseudonym!  This blog is about to change.
As I told you in my last post, I’ve been having an “existential crisis” because Pat didn’t know I was writing a blog about our relationship.
And the only way to stop stressing was to just tell him about it.
This made me nervous, but I couldn’t say exactly why. It wasn’t like I was afraid he’d be angry at me.  My concern was that he’d feel I had violated his trust.
It’s probably weird to most people, but Daniel has become a good friend in the past eight months and keeping this from him bothered me.
I hadn’t used his real name, but it wouldn’t take a cyber genius to connect the dots from the description of the crime.
On Friday May 22, I visited him at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana and I told him.His reaction floored me.

Instead of being upset or even concerned, he seemed amused.
I reassured him that I wasn’t using his name though, so no worries there…
He asked me, “Why not?”
This seemed like a foolish question on his part.
“Umm…I don’t want to write anything that will get you in trouble.”
He laughed.
Yes, OK, that statement is rather ridiculous considering where I’m visiting him.
Basically, he said that there’s already a ton of stuff written about him and most of it’s bad, so go ahead and use his real name.
I’m guessing he thinks what I write will be all good stuff.