Camille Kershaw’s daughter has been behind bars for more than a decade now, but that doesn’t make spending the holidays without her any easier.
“It’s extremely, extremely depressing,” she says. “You don’t even know you’re depressed until it hits you as an adult, and then you have to seek out and get some help.”
Kershaw’s daughter, Jimille Brown, is serving a 43-year sentence after being convicted on charges of aggravated vehicular hijacking, armed robbery and first-degree murder in connection with the 2005 murder of cabdriver Abimbola Ogunniyi.
The 49-year-old Kershaw, a cook for Chicago Public Schools, takes care of Brown’s daughter, Imani, who was born not long after Brown was incarcerated.
“I’ve had guardianship of her since they allowed me to get her,” she says.
As difficult as the holidays can be on Kershaw, she says, they’re even harder on Imani because, unlike her classmates, she can’t celebrate with her mom.
“It’s extremely hard because Imani doesn’t like to really celebrate (the holidays) because when she goes to functions, she’ll see other kids with their parents,” Kershaw says. “They’re like ‘Imani, where are your parents?’ And she’ll just tell them, “They’re on vacation,” and then she’ll just walk away.”
Because she’s looking after Imani, Kershaw says, she’s too often focused more on Imani’s mental well-being and how she’s handling being without her mom around the holidays than her own happiness.
“You don’t even know that it’s hit you, because you’re so worried about the child and how it’s going to affect them that you forget about yourself,” she says. “Then when you find yourself at work — I’m a cook at CPS — I see other kids and their parents, and you break down. You wash your face, and you come out, and it’ll be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Nothing, I’m fine,’ and all the time you’re really not. Then you get home, and you pray. It’s hard, and it’s getting harder.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Pearl Mullen, whose daughter, Shakyla Mullen, has spent the past three years behind bars.
“It’s not like having a Christmas, really,” she says. “It’s just there. It’s heartbreaking not to have your family for the holidays. You’ve got to keep the hope when you don’t have your family and knowing it’s going to be OK.”
And for about three hours on Saturday afternoon, it was OK.
Kershaw and Mullen were among dozens who boarded buses in the parking lot of the Home Depot at 200 W. 87th St. on a cold and dreary Saturday morning, those buses taking them 170 miles southwest on Interstate 55 to see their loved ones at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. The trip is part of the Reunification Ride program, which gives people like Kershaw a chance to see loved ones who are incarcerated far from their homes that they might not otherwise have.
“I can’t wait to see her and hug her,” Kershaw said of her daughter as she spoke with a reporter on the bus before taking off. “We don’t get to go unless the bus goes, so this is it.”
Despite being inside a prison, Mullen says, the visit provides a much-needed sense of normalcy around the holiday season for families who will feel the void of their loved ones’ absence on Christmas Day.
“Me and her children (Shakyla has two sons) forget that she’s in a facility,” Mullen says. “It’s actually like being in our house, and we’re all having fun until they say it’s time to go. That’s an awesome feeling. Everything is forgotten for those three hours.”
The joy, however short-lived on that Saturday, is evident in a video of the reunification provided by the state of Illinois.
“We made it! We’re heeeeeeeeere!”
Mothers are reunited with their children, exchanging hugs and kisses and laughter, one woman styling her daughter’s hair, another playing a game with her son, making up for the kind of time you lose when you find yourself behind bars.
“We really, really, really, really, really miss you. We’re waiting for you to come home. Now, she’s getting bigger.”
For a moment, there’s holiday cheer in a place you’d least expect to find it.
“You want your mommy to come home for Christmas,” a woman dressed in a Santa suit asks, and a child on her lap nods in the affirmative.
Karena Edwards sat next to her daughter Karon Scott, tears welling up in her eyes as she tried to put into words what she was feeling.
Edwards has been behind bars since 2012, serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery after she and her husband, Charles, carried out a three-month crime spree.
It’s been years, but Scott says she’s hanging on to happier Christmas memories of time spent with her mom.
“I miss her being at home, opening gifts at one o’clock in the morning.” Scott says, as tears well up in her mother’s eyes beside her.
“It means a lot, just to get to spend time with her and my mom, even though it’s only for a few hours,” Edwards adds. “It means so much to me just to have them with me right before Christmas.”
Inmates and their families aren’t the only ones feeling the strain of the holidays.
Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, an associate professor at Boston University Metropolitan College who spent more than two decades working in correctional facilities, says the holidays are also hard on prison staff.
“Quite frankly, it can be depressing working inside a prison during the holidays,” she says. “Corrections officers (who are working) are away from their families. This is particularly tough on new officers who have young children and don’t have the seniority to get the day off from work.”
It is with that in mind that staff and outside volunteers are trying to bring some Christmas cheer to places where it would ordinarily be hard to find.
William Kinville, deputy chief of the Lake County Jail, says during the holidays, volunteers from local churches come into the prison and sing Christmas carols to the inmates.
“You’d be surprised at the participation that you get (from inmates),” he says. “During that time, we authorize (volunteers) to bring in baked goods for the inmates, mostly cookies.”
Kinville says the prison will also throw a Christmas party for officers to help buoy their spirits.
Other organizations are focused on making sure the children of inmates don’t feel left out this holiday season when their friends are receiving gifts.
James Ackerman, president and CEO of nonprofit prison ministry Prison Fellowship, says his organization will deliver gifts to more than 300,000 children who have a parent behind bars this year through its Angel Tree program.
“The majority of Angel Tree is facilitated through individuals who, on a particular Sunday, select an angel off a Christmas tree in their church and agree, in selecting that angel, to go purchase a Christmas gift on behalf of that child,” he says. “The churches then coordinate to then have the children and the families come to the church to receive those gifts or go out into the community and deliver the gifts personally.”
It’s a process that begins long before the holidays.
Ackerman says, each summer, Prison Fellowship volunteers head to correctional facilities across the country to speak to those who are incarcerated. Parents who will spend the holidays behind bars give volunteers the names and ages of their children as well as the type of gift they would like to receive. Parents also include a special message to their child.
Tashauna Edwards, 26, says she benefited from the Angel Tree program when she was growing up and her father was behind bars. That small gesture, the simple giving of a Christmas gift with a message from a parent, goes a long way during what can be a stressful time of year for a child.
“It reminded me that I shouldn’t forget him,” she says. “That helped me to remember that my dad still cares; he still loves me. That was most important, not the gift but being able to hear from him and talk to him. Him giving a gift reminded me that he’s still there loving me from a distance.”
Ackerman spent 12 years volunteering with Prison Fellowship before taking over as CEO of the organization this past summer. He says something as simple as sending a card to a friend or family member who is behind bars can make a world of difference this time of year.
“Prisoners are often the most marginalized people in society because they’re largely forgotten about,” he says. “The dignity of receiving a notice or a visit or a Christmas card that says we care about you and you matter to us is very, very significant.”
“We feel left out or unable to meaningfully participate in celebratory fashion — in freedom — with our loved ones,” wrote Eric Watkins, an inmate at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., in a letter about what it is like to spend the holidays in prison.
This Christmas is set to be the last one Shakyla Mullen will spend behind bars. She is scheduled to be paroled Jan. 16, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
While the past few Christmases have been dreary without her, Pearl says she can’t wait until this time next year.
“Oh, it’s going to be joyful,” she says, laughing. “I hope we can have a Christmas in the Bahamas, not Chicago. It’s going to be like Christmas every day having her out from behind bars.”
Matt Lindner is a freelancer.