I learned to love Christmas and see the good in all mankind on Christmas Eve 2006, which I spent in Greenhaven, a maximum-security prison in New York State. Two years of heroin addiction culminating in five convictions for armed robbery had brought me there, and it was already my fourth holiday season inside. The press may have dubbed me "the Apologetic Bandit" for my contrition during the crimes, but I still had seven more years to go behind the wall; I was ashamed, but I consoled myself with the notion that good and evil, or right and wrong, are man-made concepts that I could ignore. I was a moral relativist with a rationale for every misdeed, but that December 24, I witnessed pure Good and had no choice but to abandon the lessons the Nietzsche taught me. I was already surrounded by endless examples of Bad, but this was my first real exposure to its polar opposite. It was an epiphany, and my dubious ethics were unsustainable; hard evidence convinced me. I just never imagined it would happen behind a 40-foot wall.
December is when the sergeants recite Albany's suicide-prevention techniques to the correctional officers every morning at roll call. Knowing the signs is part of the job; losing a ward of the state costs a lot when the families of convicts who managed to hang themselves sue. The guards are instructed to notice if a prisoner stops bathing or eating, radically changes his habits, or alters his sleeping patterns. Vigilance is paramount during the holiday, because episodes of depression are common; there's not a convict who doesn't count his Christmases missed. The cops especially know that the shrinks need to be alerted if they see a convict parting with his possessions: Gifts are one thing, but if it's everything, the generosity means they won't be needing cassette tapes and skull caps where they are going.
Free society is likewise full of holiday depressives who are unmoved by the humanity-redeeming miracle that Christmas supposedly commemorates. For such skeptics, the notion of bad people capable of doing good things is far more compelling: Whether it's Ebenezer Scrooge learning the true meaning of charity or The Nightmare Before Christmas antihero Jack Skellington trying his hand at the holiday after kidnapping Santa, the modern Christmas miracle requires redemption by unexpected hands. The Good deed must be done by a Bad guy, and now I had my pick of those.
Men spend decades in maximum joints, sharing their years with the guards watching them. It's inevitable that everyone gets to know each other real well, and we all knew that something was wrong with our steady officer. He was the guy who ran the block day after day, year after year; men doing decades watch their steadies age and grow fat. They also know them as well as the limitations permit, and ours was unwell. He hadn't given his baton away yet, exactly, but he'd definitely stopped shaving.
The man's wife had left in the fall; she took the kids, two boys. All through December, we witnessed him waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from his sons. He called the front desk for messages on the hour and waited for the mail truck's arrival with the same eagerness that we did. Disappointed day after day, his misery grew to a crescendo on Christmas Eve, when the duty sergeant gave him a paycheck, but not a Christmas card. The officer had already learned that his mailbox at home was empty; he called a patient neighbor who checked for him daily. His last chance was gone, and we watched him return to his desk, listlessly blind to the world. It would have been a great night to get away with murder, as the man was reduced to an oblivious sack of misery. Instead, I averted my gaze like everyone else, uncomfortable with his obvious tragedy.
As far as cops went, he wasn't the best , but there were plenty worse. He didn't bring in venison or leave the showers open like the best-loved guards did, but he also didn't search the cells too hard or call in a squad if he smelled pot. Mostly he watched the clock.
The men he guarded were a common assortment of killers and junkies, but we did have one exotic bird in our zoo. This guy kept to himself, and didn't tell any tales of glamorous crimes and ill-gotten loot even though he was a career criminal; a lifetime of forging checks and traveling ahead of the consequences had caught up to him, so he served his sentence quietly, all the while knowing that he had more money handed to him by tellers than any bank robber thanks to the magic in his hands. Forging was his hobby as well as his career; for fun, he had learned to duplicate all of the recent American presidents' signatures. Sometimes he would sit down and start with Eisenhower, crumbling up the paper as soon as he reached Obama.
A lifetime of artfully dodging the authorities (required by his crime of choice) made him a terrible father, but recently, the forger's daughter had found and contacted him; it was a kind gesture, even if she was cautious enough to forgo signing the letter. It made an impression on the conman, and as a result, he could not now bear to witness our steady officer's condition. I've signed plenty of birthday cards for fellow inmates, especially the ones not expecting any in the mail, but when the forger showed up with a lovingly drawn Christmas card from the "fellas" of the unit to their "favorite officer," the block's population recoiled as one. No one wanted to be called a rat the next day, the price of signing Christmas cards for a cops.
The forger had used calligraphy and a highlighter, and his grammar was as dubious as this venture. I suspected that signing was probably the right thing to do, but I was not in my natural habitat and followed the crowd. Furious with our unwillingness, he tore down the sheet we had all signed to receive fresh bedding in the morning and retreated to his cell, which was next to mine. Two hours later, he called me in.
He was risking his reputation by showing me, but could not help himself: He wanted someone to bear witness to his art. Sixty signatures now graced the card, some with little messages in consistent lettering. All were perfect imitations; seeing my own name, I would have admitted to writing it. Swearing me to secrecy, he snuck down the tier and put the card on the cop's chair when he took a break in the officers' bathroom. Watching from my cell, I saw the man return and discover it. Reading over the list of fellas who wished him a Merry Christmas, he barely made it through before retreating to the toilet, where I strongly suspect he blissfully wept: Returning with bloodshot and weepy eyes, he kept a doofy grin on for the rest of the night. His children might not care enough to put a card in the mail, but if the men he kept locked in their cages did, how bad a guy could he be?
I never said a word, although I did notice some tension the next day when the cop told the men getting their sheets and blankets that they were decent fellas. But the incident passed without tragedy: Far as I knew, not one of the 60 signers had his name dragged through the mud, and even the forger did not become known as a "pig-lover." Meanwhile, I felt a change in myself, which with time I realized was the death of my moral relativism and ill-conceived desire to ascend beyond good and evil. Maybe it was a small miracle, but it was a miracle nevertheless. I had witnessed something rare: Good. As a result, that Christmas Eve left me a different man, like someone who has seen a UFO or working pay phone. It was frustrating that I couldn't even tell anyone, but that's the way it had to be. Only the forger, the cop, and I knew that Christmas had come to prison, too.
Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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