York County Jail inmate Amber wraps a gift for one of her children on Saturday, Dec. 9 at the jail. The event was designed to help maintain the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children. Photo: Tammy Wells
By Tammy Wells, York County media specialist
Many people have plans for special holidays, and that often means time spent with family and other cherished loved ones. When your address is jail, though, holidays can be complicated and sad.
Events on Saturday, Dec. 9, at York County Jail in Alfred were designed to bring a little joy to inmates and their families. Some who attended jail art class produced hand-painted holiday cards that they’ll send to family and friends. And some female inmates had an opportunity to choose gifts for their children.
“It’s a wonderful thing they’re trying to do; it’s really meaningful,” said inmate Nichole, who has a 6-year-old daughter.
The gift initiative came about through a collaboration between the York County Jail Board of Visitors and the prison ministry of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Sanford.
The two entities got together earlier in December and asked the women about the sorts of things they thought their children might like. They acquired a selection of gifts from stuffed animals to bicycles, ice skates to clothing, games, and more. Then they helped inmates choose and wrap the gifts.
Amber picked a doll with long, curly blond locks for her stepdaughter. Brandi chose a bike for her 4-year-old. Adrienne picked up some model train landscape materials for her 14-year-old, who has a train set. Another resident chose a warm jacket for her teenage son.
Board of Visitors member Janet Drew noted that Christmas can be tough for the families of inmates.
“The children of incarcerated parents tend to be forgotten children, forgotten by society in general,” Board of Visitors member Susan Wiswell said as she deftly measured and cut festive wrapping paper for the gifts.
“Children deserve a connection with their parents, if possible,” said St. Therese of Lisieux Prison Ministry member Paul Duprey.
York County Sheriff Bill King said initiatives like this one help foster that connection.
The prison ministry of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish began through the efforts of the late Father Theodore Letendre and Brother Henry of the Brothers of Christian Instruction, said member John Murphy. Over time, the ministry expanded to help inmates improve their technical skills, write resumes and otherwise get ready for re-entry into their communities on their release, said member Bob Carr.
All of Maine’s 15 county jails are required by statute to have a Board of Visitors, who serve three-year terms and inspect the premises, meet with inmates, and review jail management among other duties.
“Initiatives like this one, helping nurture the parent-child relationship, could bring additional benefits,” said Board of Visitors member Robert McCormack. “It could help the parent in jail know they’ve got to make a change,” he said.
“This is good,” agreed York County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Cummer, on hand for the gift-wrapping event. “I love it.”
Women inmates at last Saturday’s event hope to deliver their gifts during in-person visits before Christmas. If that doesn’t work out for some, volunteers will see that the items are delivered or mailed.
As the afternoon wound down and the gifts were all wrapped and carefully tagged with names, the women prepared to go back to their housing units.
“Thank you for doing this for us; we appreciate it very much,” said inmate Renee.
“We’re so grateful,” said Brandi.
King said he’s pleased with the event and its intent. “We don’t incarcerate individuals,” he said, “we incarcerate families.”