BALTIMORE – If the words “holiday meal” do not appear above the lunchtime menu, Denise Webster said she will not recognize this Thursday as Thanksgiving.
“It’s real sad and awful depressing to be here without your family,” said Webster, a 40-year-old inmate awaiting trial in the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Webster will be among nearly 3,400 men and women in the facility who will not see family members on the holiday. The day will bring little more than turkey lunch eaten with plastic spoons and 60 minutes of televised football games during a recreation hour.
“I know we created our own condition,” said 41-year-old Paula Joyce during a group interview in the facility last week. “But I think they could do something better.”
But LaMont Flanagan, commissioner of the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, said the inmates do not deserve better.
“No one invited them here. They’re not on scholarship. This is a penal system, not a country club,” he said, pacing back and forth behind a desk stacked high with papers and personal trinkets. “We make every attempt to make this environment conducive to living, but they are not home. They are incarcerated.”
He added: “Let us not forget, these people are not a benefit to society. They are a burden to society. They are the reason the security business is a multi-billion-dollar industry. They are the reason why we have alarms on our cars, locks on our doors, guards on our windows and why there is an aggressive movement in our society for citizens to carry firearms.”
Before hearing the inmates’ complaints, the commissioner had spoken at length about the importance of protecting the Constitution’s innocent-until-proven-guilty doctrine, and in making holiday arrangements in his facility reflect this distinction.
About 99 percent of the roughly 3,400 adults and 180 juveniles under Flanagan’s supervision are awaiting trial for their alleged crimes, which include prostitution, narcotics violations and an array of property, violent and drug-related crimes.
“If we follow the constitutional guarantee of innocent until proven guilty, these inmates are just …[a]waiting trial. So they should not be treated harshly just because they could not afford bail,” Flanagan said.
But age will factor into the kind of day the inmates have. For instance, the juveniles are the only prisoners who will be permitted to dine with their families. The youths also will be treated to musical entertainment while they eat.
A select group of male inmates will attend comedy, magic and rhythm and blues shows the evening before Thanksgiving.
The women will not see shows or have extra visitors’ time Thursday. But Flanagan said the women inmates will be allowed family time around the Christmas holiday.
The five inmates interviewed last week complained that even the so-called special meal on Thanksgiving is barely different than the food dished out to them in plastic compartmentalized trays every day.
Serving Thursday’s holiday meal to the 4,400 inmates, officers and staff will require 1,656 pounds of turkey, 125 gallons of gravy, 1,500 pounds of potatoes, 308 loaves of bread, 1,000 pounds of vegetable medley, 250 pounds of cranberry sauce, 500 pounds of frosted white cake and 250 gallons of 2-percent milk.
“It’s nothing to look forward to,” said Webster, who will be spending her second Thanksgiving in jail this year. “Sliced turkey one-and-a-half inches thick, mashed potatoes and a can of cranberries.”
Prison officials did not reveal what charges Webster and the others face. She and the other four inmates interviewed were asked to sign release forms limiting the conversation to Thanksgiving in prison.
Flanagan said they should stop complaining about their conditions.
“They should be happy to be receiving turkey and gravy on both Thursday and Saturday,” he said, when shown the week’s menu, which lists nearly the same meal for Thursday’s holiday lunch as Saturday’s dinner. “Because if they had been in other institutions – including outside the United States – all [they] would receive is bread and soup.”
The only adults at the Baltimore City Detention Center who will see friends or family on Thanksgiving are those whose one- hour, weekly visitation privileges fall on that day.
Almost all other correctional institutions around the state also provide a holiday meal. In addition, some offer special visiting arrangements and programs, such as clowns, storytellers and entertainment, said Joan Graham Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.
All inmates at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown – a medium-security prison for men – will be allowed one-hour family visits, said Ronald Bucher, volunteer activities coordinator. The Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, also a medium-security prison for men, will extend its policy to allow family visits from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of only a morning or afternoon visit, said Rae Sheeley, a spokeswoman for the facility. -30-