As inmates and visitors can tell you, San Quentin celebrates Christmas like no other prison in California. There were carolers in the cellblocks, a banquet honoring volunteers and inmates’ kids got presents around the Visiting Room Christmas tree.
One of the festive things about Christmas time in San Quentin for an inmate is hearing the carolers come into the housing units to sing traditional Christmas songs a cappella.
This year there were 56 volunteers and 12 inmates, led by Craig Singleton, a volunteer at the Protestant Chapel and head of the Dominican University Music Department.
“We come in with a spirit and attitude that we are here to uplift the men,” said one long-time volunteer, Jerry Stubblefield, a retired Golden Gate Seminary professor. “We come to minister in this place, but I would say that we are ministered to.”
Stubblefield added, “For several years we went into the gym. One of the things that amazed me, and it probably shouldn’t have, was that the inmates knew all of the carols and they sang with us. It made us feel great.”
Another festive event was a banquet honoring volunteers who work with inmates in Protestant Chapel programs.
In the past, volunteer Christmas carolers were confined to the entrance rotunda of Condemned Row, but for the first time the volunteers were allowed to enter into the Condemned Row housing unit.
The carolers sang traditional Christmas songs before the rapt audience of inmates as they sat locked inside their cells.
Many inmates joined in with the singing and when it was over there were numerous shouts of “Thank you!” and “Merry Christmas!”
“I really appreciated that people from the surrounding communities would take the time out of their busy lives to come in here to sing to us and bring us some Christmas cheer,” said Kris Miller, an inmate.
“I just sat back in my cell and closed my eyes and felt like I was in a different place for a few moments,” said Chris Murphey, another inmate, “I just wish they could of stayed longer,” he said.
The volunteers and inmates sang in North Block, South Block, West Block, and East Block (Condemned Row).
For 22 years, the Vietnam Veterans Group of San Quentin (VVGSQ) has been instrumental in making Christmas very special for the inmates and their visitors during Christmas time.
In previous years, veterans dressed as Santa and his elves would pass out toys to all the children who visited during the holidays.
One of the special things for inmates was having their pictures taken with their children and Santa Claus, but after 22 years of this tradition, the administration deemed the Santa Claus outfit was escape paraphernalia. So this Christmas there was no Santa in San Quentin.
— JulianGlenn Padgett contributed to this story.