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The Heartbreak of Spending Christmas in Prison

Wrongfully convicted women recall the holidays they spent behind bars.

Rod Bastanmehr

Rod Bastanmehr

Four wrongfully convicted women. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

2016 has been saddled with the title of "worst year ever" for some months now. The holiday season serves as the sugar helping the bitter medicine go down, but for many Americans, December proves to be the opposite, a rather sedentary affair. And nowhere is this truer than for the wrongfully convicted women and men living in the annals of our prison system.

According to the Washington Post, there are two million people behind bars in the United State alone, and a staggering 4.1 percent of people sentenced to death are later shown to be innocent. CEO of Lava Records Jason Flom is the founding board member of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. On his podcast, Wrongful Conviction, Flom has highlighted the resilience of spirit it takes to survive a faulty sentence in an unforgiving system. And for many, that will is tested most around Christmastime.

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"I am always in awe of the strength, the grace and the courage it takes to endure," Flom says. "I think all of us who have been lucky enough to avoid that fate have to sit in awe of these people, who manage not only to survive, but come out on the other side of this soul-crushing experience."

"Christmas is, aside from your birthday, the absolute worst time of year in prison," says Sunny Jacobs, a wrongfully convicted woman who has appeared on Flom's podcast. In 1976, Jacobs was sentenced to death for a double murder of a Florida highway patrol officer and his friend during a routine traffic stop. At the time, Jacobs was traveling with her boyfriend, Jesse Tafero, and her two children, nine-year-old Eric and ten-month-old Christina. Tafero's friend, Walter Norman Rhodes, drove the car. According to Jacobs, Rhodes instigated the shoot out. He negotiated a plea bargain with the state in exchange for a life sentence and alleged that Tafero and Jacobs had pulled the triggers. In 1990, the state of Florida executed Tafero. Jacobs spent five years in isolation on Florida's Death Row. After filmmaker Micki Dickoff investigated the crimes and argued Jacobs's innocence, the Broward County State Attorney offered Jacobs's a plea deal that would allow her freedom without making her admit guilt. In 1992, after 17 years in maximum-security prison, Jacobs left prison. She was at the age of 45.

"When I was by myself in isolation, in some ways it was easier and in others, harder," Jacobs says. "I didn't have to contend with anyone else's shit, it's just me with mine."

For most in solitary, the passing of time can feel amorphous, with days bleeding into each other with a zombie-like rhythm. The approaching air of the holiday season often tests incarcerated people placed in solitary confinement. "When I was pulled out [of solitary] and put in with the main population, it felt like you sort of had to help cheer up the people who just couldn't really deal with the season," Jacobs recalls. "Every Christmas, people would have to be locked up because they just couldn't handle it. Some people couldn't be in touch with family or children, others would have a visit and their heart would be broken when they came back."

One holiday season, Jacobs says, a rash of thefts occurred across the prison. Incarcerated people stole gifts from the few prisoners who received gifts from friends and family. Jacobs and a group of inmates announced that there would be "absolutely no stealing from any dormitory." Throughout the night, the women kept lookout to prevent further thievery. They even made sure to place a small gift in everyone's individual bunk to tamper perspective robbers' motivation. "Overall it was a hard time, but we managed to decorate and create a place that helped us get through," Jacob says.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For Anna Vasquez, a wrongfully convicted woman, the holidays managed to strengthen her commitment to God. Vasquez was one of four women dubbed by the press as the San Antonio Four, all of who were wrongfully convicted in 1997 and 1998 for the raping of the seven and nine year old nieces of Elizabeth Ramirez, who was sentenced to 38 years in prison. The other three women were sentenced to fifteen. They were eventually contacted by the Innocence Project of Texas, which managed to shed light on erroneous medical examination and a false testimony. The women were released in 2013 after serving 16 years. On November 23 of this year, they were officially exonerated and declared innocent.

A lifelong Catholic, but a proud lesbian, Vasquez's life on the outside created a unique tension that her time in prison helped to heal. "It was so rare, especially in the Catholic community in the free world, to be accepted for gay relationships, to be apart of both communities at once," she recalls. "Even though I would still go to church on my own, it never felt like anyone saw the real me. It was like putting up a front. So when I went to prison and met Deacon [Julian] Tybornowski, it felt like being accepted by the catholic community for the first time."

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Vasquez's seasonal blues would start around Halloween. "Basically from there until the end of New Years Eve is utterly dreary," she says. "It's miserable. Holidays use to be a time where everything would stop—during the year everyone is so busy, so it was this chance for me to catch up and look forward to something together with my family. I'm not going to say that I was depressed, but it was tough."

Still, Vasquez thanks Tybornowski for establishing a daily routine as well as a center of gravity during the chaos of the holiday season. Every year, the prison's Catholic church attendees would go through books to choose scenes to perform during the Christmas holiday pageant. In a particularly notable year, Vasquez dressed as the cow in the manger with the three kings and baby Jesus himself.

"No one wanted to be the cow, so I just thought I would do the damn thing," Vasquez recalls with a laugh. "I would get on my hands and knees—it was ridiculous. No one wanted it! But I thought I'd do it. It was such a hard time for everyone. I was just happy to laugh and have people laughing."

Kristie Mayhugh, another of the San Antonio Four, found her faith challenged in the lead up to her sentence. "I can't say that my anger was directed at anything other than god," she says. "I never really got angry at people or anyone in specific. That was something I dealt with on the inside and made peace with, something I had to let go of. But keeping hope and faith alive was the challenge at first."

Through it all, the four women staunchly upheld their innocence, refusing a number of plea deals. "I'm not going to say that I fully understand everything, but I read my bible more in prison, and my faith got a lot stronger," Mayhugh says. "Honestly I think of the whole ordeal as a test of faith. I would relay the whole situation as Job from the bible. Once I read that—and I've read it several times—but once I read it, I related to it."

"After all these years, it's a blur," says Vasquez. "I look back some days and I think, 'how the hell did I do it? How did I find the strength, that I didn't know I had?'

For the men and women behind bars, creating a sense of normalcy can be a survival tactic. The holidays are another in a long line of emotional hurdles to endure, but they can manage to illuminate the holidays' meanings. The San Antonio Four found themselves free mere days before Thanksgiving. When it came to Christmas, Jacobs would lean into something akin to ceremony.

"Although I was isolated, and that was more sad in a specific way, I could control my environment," she says. "Christmas would be about finding ritual: making origami, tinsel out of the silver foil in cigarette packages... I would send my spirit out to my children, to Jessie, who was still on death row. You always learn to make the best of it. You hold out for the holiday spirit."