The winter holidays are a time when we celebrate traditions that connect us with our past, reminding us of who we are and where we come from. At the same time, the beginning of a new year prompts us to reflect on where we’re going.
These meanings of the season shine through in the reflections of a pair of formerly incarcerated men who recently returned home. The Prison Society spoke with two men in our mentoring program who wanted to share what it’s like to spend the holidays back home again. Here’s what they had to say.
Anthony “Quay” B.
This is the second Christmas that Quay will be together with his family after 21 years of incarceration. As a Muslim, he doesn’t personally observe the holiday, but it’s important to him to join in his family’s celebrations.
From his 81-year-old mother to his 2-year-old grandson (“my right-hand man”), four generations of Quay’s family are gathering this year. He’s especially looking forward to sharing the moment with his mother.
“The expression on my mother’s face, looking at her descendants, man... that’s priceless.”
Quay says it’s impossible to describe what it was like to be reunited with his family for his first Christmas back home. “Just to sit there and see the ones that was children when I left, they're grown now with their own kids ... man, it was unexplainable. It’s an extremely warm feeling.”
When he was sent away to prison, his daughter was 13, and his son was 10-months-old. Now, they were grown adults, with children of their own.
But there were other less-welcome changes that Quay, now 59, observed after his 21 years away. He returned to a neighborhood reeling from a gun violence crisis that drove homicides in Philadelphia past a record set over three decades earlier. The city felt colder, darker, and less friendly than before.
“It seem like everybody come out they door just to reach they destination real fast and get back into the confines of their home where they feel safe at,” Quay says.
He worries about the young people in his neighborhood, who have few activities to get them off the streets, and many of whose parents are either incarcerated or consumed by addiction.
In prison, Quay became an informal counselor for the younger men he was incarcerated with. “Give yourself a chance,” he would tell them. “Go ahead and get a job and take care of yourself, man, and get off these streets." Now, he has ambitions of sharing his hard-earned wisdom in his community. He wants to start an organization that mentors young people at risk of being drawn into the street life, including those returning home from prison.
"I was fortunate to come home to a very warm, extended, loving family,” Quay says. “But I know a lot of people inside them institutions that's not blessed in that aspect."
Looking at family photos from recent holidays past, Rashid, 32, realizes his three years of incarceration were especially painful for his family members this time of year.
“There’s pictures that I’m not in,” he says.
This Christmas, Rashid says he won’t take the holiday gatherings with his large family for granted. He’ll be celebrating with his mother in suburban Philadelphia before heading to his aunt’s house in Delaware to be with his father’s extended family. Rashid is looking forward to seeing relatives, like his great-grandmother, whom he missed on those special occasions when he was incarcerated.
But there are some loved ones he won’t have the chance to share those moments with again. Since he was sent to prison, he lost a cousin to gun violence, and a close friend who was battling addiction.
“Coming home and losing them gave me more appreciation of life and freedom and family, you know, and being aware and living in the present,” Rashid says.
While remembering loved ones and reconnecting with family, Rashid is looking to his future with a new holiday tradition, as he celebrates Kwanzaa for the first time. The seven principles underlying the celebration of African-American culture resonated with him when he began studying them in prison. He rattles them off one-by-one: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Rashid is excited to share what he’s learned with his little brother, who is twelve years his junior. “That’s my heart right there,” he says. “Being around him and just continuing to build our relationship is very important to me also."
Everyone at the Prison Society wishes you and yours a warm and safe holiday season. We look forward to working alongside our supporters to create more moments of connection and compassion in the new year.