Welcome to Who-Ville!

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas……” Every year during the Christmas season at the Seagoville, Texas, Federal Prison, the compound is changed into a Christmas spectacular, with an array of decorations among the seven different units. Each unit is entered into a decorating contest to compete for the prize of a special new-release movie and popcorn in the auditorium. Watching a new release movie and receiving “free” popcorn is a very big deal in prison, so most units go all out in trying to win the award.

This year my unit decided to do the theme from the movie “The Grinch.” My unit has 150 two-man rooms, a number of 6-12 man rooms, two levels, two sides, and sleeps 375 inmates. It is the largest unit on the compound. In other words, there is a lot of space that needs to be filled with decorations. But we also have many more inmates that help out with decorating. The rules stipulate that any material found on the compound can be used for decorating, except wood, plastic, and any other dangerous or hazardous material. Basically, the only material we are allowed to use is paper, cardboard, soda cans, and paint (which the unit counselor can buy if asked).

With the artistry and creative minds that are on this compound, just a few supplies and materials are all one needs to make a Christmas spectacular. And let me tell you, it was more than just a Christmas spectacular in my unit – it was a Christmas production as well. Here is a list of some of the decorations and events that happened in my unit:

  • Each room was turned into a Who-ville home, with both a cardboard mailbox and a porch light that could light up, using a handheld commissary reading light
  • Street signs and “Welcome to Who-ville” entryways
  • Multiple Christmas murals painted on the walls
  • A 20-foot tall Christmas tree made out of 2,000 soda cans, with shredded paper and presents underneath it.
  • A cardboard fireplace protruding from the wall
  • A 16-person choir
  • Shredded paper falling from the second floor to make it look like it was snowing
  • Giant 3D snowflakes hung across the balcony
  • A Grinch lair
  • An inmate emulating Cindy Lou’s great grandson, giving a tour while telling a story to the judges
  • Colored paper covering the walls
  • A giant 20-foot tall blow-up snowman made out of paper (I’m still not sure how they were able to blow it up)

After a month of planning, organizing and decorating, my unit was ready for the show-and-tell and to be judged by the “big wigs” of the compound. With snow gently falling from our balcony, Cindy Lou’s great grandson gave the tour and told a story while the choir sang in the background. It was more or less a production that was well rehearsed. It took about 15 minutes from start to finish with a lot of oohing and aahing from the judges the entire time. Needless to say, they were all very impressed and said this was the best overall showing in all the years of the decorating contest. It was quite the scene to see.

Yes, you guessed it……we earned first place honors this year. And yes, this was the highlight of my Christmas this year. No presents or visits from any family and friends, but still a good time with inmates who have become friends and family while here, and together we made this Christmas  a positive experience.

Most important of all, some of us celebrated the birth of baby Jesus in this dark place and know that even here His light can be seen by those of us who claim Him as our Savior. He was born for all people, including those who are incarcerated. Take a few minutes and pray for those who need to know him, inside and outside the prison walls, and may God give you His peace as you begin a new year.

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Pop Goes the Knee

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The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word December is winter. The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word winter is snow. I absolutely love winter time, especially the snow. Although I don’t like being cold, I love the cold weather. I always have enjoyed sitting outside around a fire watching it snow. And I have always loved cold weather outdoor activities and sports. I would much rather be bundled up on the ski slopes than run around on the beach wearing swim trunks.

In Texas it hardly snows, maybe an occasional dusting on the ground each year. For the past several years I’ve been disappointed that another winter has gone by without a significant amount of white stuff on the ground.

Thinking of snow always brings back a memory that happened to me in 2005 on a field trip with some students. I was teaching at an inner city school in Milwaukee at the time and most of the students had never gone snow skiing before. We decided to take them to the local ski hills of Wisconsin. Yes, hills are a good way to put it. While skiing down a mountain in Colorado can take up to 30 minutes, skiing down a hill in Wisconsin will take about 30 seconds. But this place was perfect for these middle schoolers who had never skied before. Lessons came with the lift tickets so the morning was spent learning how to ski and stop on the bunny hills before taking the lift to the top of the slopes. Some of the more athletic kids picked it up instantly and were breezing through the lessons. As soon as they passed the lesson and got the OK, they were ready to take the lift up to the top.

After lunch a few of the boys who were doing fairly well asked if I would take them to the terrain park to do a few jumps…….nothing big or scary, but just to get a few feet off the ground. I agreed and we immediately took the lift up to the area where the park was located. We spent about an hour or so there. There were many falls and wipeouts, along with many laughs. As the confidence of the kids grew they would go faster, hit bigger jumps and catch more air. They were enjoying every part of it. I’ve done my fair share of jumps throughout my skiing days, so I was having a good time as well.

Then it happened…..on our last run through the park, I noticed a jump off to the side that I had not yet hit, so I decided to give it a whirl. I didn’t have a whole lot of speed as I was unfamiliar with the jump. But it was good enough to get a few feet off the ground. I hit the middle of the jump and was on my way to sticking my last landing of the day when all of a sudden I noticed it was a flat landing instead of a sloped landing. Sloped landings create a softer landing, whereas flat landings create a hard impact, causing all of your weight to land in the same spot at the same time. I knew I could land it, but also was ready for a hard impact. Even though I knew what to expect, as soon as I hit the ground, my right ski shot out, while my right knee buckled inward and all of my weight on that side of the body. POP came the sound on my inside right knee. I hit the ground immediately and was in excruciating pain. The kids skied over to me and saw the expression on my face and knew I was hurting. They helped me remove my skis and get me to the bottom of the hill. I had just partially torn my Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL). I was officially on the disabled list.

Thankfully, it was not my ACL that tore nor did I fully tear my MCL. Both of those would require surgery. However, I had to go through ex-rays, MRI’s and attend many physical therapy sessions in order to rebuild my knee. It took months of rehab and was not easy. I had to go through a lot more pain in order for my knee to heal. And worst of all, I was not allowed to do any physical activity until I got the approval of my doctor. He told me that my right MCL will remain partially torn for the rest of my life, unless I fully tear it. Then surgery would be needed to fix it. I have had no problems since then.

Prison would not be the place to tear it since I would be required to live with it. I’m just a little more cautious these days when it comes to playing sports that involve the bending and twisting of the knee. But I still won’t shy away from the jumps while skiing……that excitement can’t be given up!

In a way, living my life is just like getting injured on the ski slopes. I have gone through many tough times and have experienced a lot of pain and suffering. When my body is in pain I go though physical therapy to make it stronger. When my life is a mess and causing me pain, I turn to God and He uses the pain to draw me closer to Him and make my faith and attitude stronger. That kind of healing makes me be as good as new again.