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Christmas in custody

by Christy Chalmers

They were surrounded by security cameras and concrete and separated from their captive but attentive audiences by a metal gate.

Voices bounced off cinderblock walls as the 15 carolers, accompanied by two guitars, launched into “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” A few of the seven men lined up single-file behind the gate mouthed the words. Light applause greeted the end of the song.

The 1999 Christmas concert at the Douglas County jail was under way.

The Monday night caroling session was one of a few events that mark Christmas for people in custody in Douglas County.

The carolers came from Living Word Fellowship and St. Gall Catholic Church. They sing annually, sometimes drawing only a handful of participants. Monday’s group was one of the largest, said Living Word member Ted Nagel, who has participated in all but a few of the sessions. His sister, Ellie O’Toole, was one of the event’s founders.

“I love it when they’re singing along and joking along,” said Nagel. “That shows they’re actually getting some joy out of it.”

Jails can be joyless places, but Lt. Al Baumruck doesn’t try to make Douglas County’s that way.

The jail prepares a “major meal” on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and inmates can eat all they want, said Baumruck.

Visiting hours are expanded, and Carson Valley United Methodist Church Pastor Pete Nelson conducts a special holiday service in the jail library.

“It’s well-received,” said Baumruck. “Some inmates get a little bit depressed. Some take it in stride. Some are looking forward to getting out.”

Nelson says the Christmas day jail services have become a personal tradition.

“It’s a tough day for them,” he said. “I have found it to be, at times, a profoundly moving experience because folks are not with their families. For some, it’s easier than others. For most, it’s a time to remember their families.”

The Christmas carolers temporarily adjourn to the library because the jailers need to move someone. They take the time to practice “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and adjust their chords, then return to find another group of inmates.

These are the higher-risk guys, as shown by their bright orange shirts. They stand aloof, arms crossed, but looking pleased. One asks for a lyric sheet, but jail rules don’t allow that. The men applaud every time the carolers pause more than a few seconds between songs; one calls “Thank you!” when a jailer signals the group that it’s time to head back to their block.

Over the hill in Stateline, where the county’s juvenile detention center is located, Christmas is a low-key affair.

Facility supervisor Ray Finnegan says the philosophy of District Judges Michael Gibbons and Dave Gamble, who handle the county’s juvenile criminal cases, usually means a low holiday census because the judges prefer not to separate families during the holidays.

Even so, Finnegan expects to have at least three in custody. As of Monday, the four wards at the facility included two from Douglas, one from Churchill and one from Lyon county.

Finnegan said he usually brings a treat to the wards on Christmas – maybe hamburgers and fries, maybe caramel corn – “something different from their average three meals a day. But I do not like to reward them for being in lockup by doing anything out of the ordinary,” he said.

Visiting hours will probably be canceled unless a ward’s probation officer recommends them.

The detention center does have a Christmas tree, donated by the senior center and decorated with handmade paper ornaments. School is also out for the holidays, just as it is elsewhere.

“We try to keep it as upbeat as we can,” said Finnegan. “We have a little section where we talk about the religious meanings of Christmas. The focus is not at all on the material things.”

Finnegan doesn’t expect many emotional responses to the holiday, based on his experience in 1998, the first year the center operated.

“They accept it,” he said. “It saddens me to see kids locked up during the holidays. It’s disappointing, at times, when you figure that their parents may not know or care where they are. I think some of them might be used to indifference.”

After serenading three groups of male inmates – a fourth has declined, explaining they have by now overheard all the songs -the carolers move to the opposite side of the jail, where an excited group of women appears behind another gate.

The carolers solicit requests. “Anything would be nice,” answers one inmate, smiling.

The women are far more exuberant than the men. They cluster at the gate, singing loudly, linking arms and swaying to the music. Not everyone knows the words to “Angels We Have Heard On High,” but they hum anyway.

A rendition of “Feliz Navidad” puts any rocking Elvis ever did in a jailhouse to shame; even when the guitarists pause, the inmates keep right on. The whooping and cheering follows them as they head back to their block, calling “Merry Christmas!” and “Thank You!”

A separate group of carolers visits the county’s other detention facility, the China Spring Youth Camp, which houses delinquent boys who are sent there for various amounts of time. Christmas Day will include a holiday-themed meal, and each ward will get a pair of gloves and a hat donated by local service clubs.

But the main focus is on counseling the boys, because Christmas at China Spring can be difficult for them – and that’s a good thing, says camp director Steve Thaler.

“We want the kids to appreciate what they’re missing. They need to know they’re missing something,” he said. “We talk about what it means to be in a facility during a special time. We hope they will think about this when they’re out.”

Parents will be able to visit on Sunday, the regular visiting day, and the wards can attend a church service, which is also held each Sunday. But the parents can’t bring care packages or gifts, because of security concerns and because it can cause conflicts.

Instead, counselors focus on providing individual attention and watching for signs of holiday-related depression.

“This is actually our busiest time,” said Thaler. “As much as some of them say they don’t care what’s going on, they do.”

The jail concert concludes 75 minutes after it started with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Outside, the carolers exchange hugs and best wishes and collect the music sheets.

Living Word member Mary Jo McKean, who played one of the guitars, says this was her first concert at the jail; previously, she’s caroled at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

She says the in-custody audiences she has encountered are generally friendly, and she was encouraged by the response of the Douglas County inmates.

“Especially the girls,” she noted. “That was fun.”