Our choir sang today at Santa Fu prison in Hamburg. We all met with smiles at the S-bahn (train) in Blankenese and made our way north about 45min. We stepped off the train in Ohlsdorf into a light slushy rain, randomly cursing the weather amongst ourselves. We walked 15 maybe 20 minutes in one large group to the facility. We stepped inside the first entrance, handed over our passports and placed all our possessions in lockers. We sang a few warm up notes while waiting to be led in small groups through the scanner to another room. Each time, the door closed and locked behind us. All but one of the choir were chatty and a little nervous, unaccustomed to visits to correctional facilities. The exception was Stephen, a defense attorney who works with some of these inmates. He set up the gig for us. I would say the majority of our conceptions of prisons had been provided by the media and movies. About 30 minutes later, after each of us had been separately taken behind a curtain to be searched, we walked back outside across an inner courtyard, up another set of stairs and locked doors to the hall and dining room. We were debriefed with a little history about the prison and inmates and the fact that these men were only allowed to see their children in an open setting once a year at Christmas. This is what struck my heart.
We walked onto the stage, the inmates and families in front of us sitting at tables. Craft areas set up entertained young ones. Baskets of fruit and chocolate Santas decorated the tables. I wanted the sincerity and respect I felt for all those that sat before us to be displayed through my face and my voice….and not be condescending or show pity. I wanted to act natural, not stare, wondering what crime each man in the room had committed, and how their families continued to provide support. A three year old boy ran up and down the few steps to the stage, helping to maintain a feeling of normalicy, family and celebration. He would sit near the singers looking up at us, slide down the stairs a couple times, then would run back to his fathers arms. People clapped, snapped their fingers, laughed and applauded after each song. I noticed the smaller children smiling and giving unconditional affection to their fathers, grandfathers, maybe an uncle… no I think it was fathers. They didn’t hold back like the teens who sat with disturbed expressions, trying to be present, but minds turning like a hamster on a wheel, their faces unable to lie.
Because of the overwhelming emotion this time of year, many inmates choose not to join the festivities. Over half the inmates didn’t come, preferring to maintain their stagnant level of emotion, avoiding the extreme high and the crushing low, that I imagine lasts longer then the designated three hour family visit.
We finished our 30 minutes of English gospel music, said our ‘Frohe Weihnachten’ and left the families to enjoy their remaining 90 minutes together. We went in reverse order, back through the motions of arrival. We made our way back again through slushy rain to the station. We spoke briefly about the concert, our own impressions of the experience, and then about who was going to the Kneipe for dinner and drinks.
As I sat on the train, I thought. These men made choices, took risks, broke the law and were caught. What motivates them each morning to get out of bed and experience the day? Do they experience forgiveness? Do they experience thankfulness? I naively imagine a desire only to fulfill basic needs such as hunger, thirst, bodily functions.
Here’s one story posted anonymously I found. Unfortunately for every one like this there are hundreds that don’t end so happily.