HOLLIDAYSBURG - Being away from family during the holidays can be difficult, but for inmates at the Blair County Prison, who can only see their parents, siblings, spouses or children from the other side of a thick glass wall, sometimes being together can be just as hard.
"That's as close as you can get," said Altoona man James Morgan, 32, motioning from a holding cell to the visitation area where inmates can receive up to three one-hour visits each week.
"And it's 10 times harder when they leave," he said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
James Morgan of Altoona has spent nine Christmases in prison over the years. He is scheduled to be released today.
Morgan, who spent his fourth consecutive Christmas - and ninth total - behind bars on various drug and assault charges, is set to be released at 8:30 this morning. But he said he was making the most of his last day by counseling others who may have never spent a holiday away from home.
The Mirror was looking to do a story about Christmas in prison, and Morgan was selected by jail officials to be interviewed.
"A lot of us will sit down and have conversations," he said. "Being inmates, it's a lot easier to talk to each other. ... Hopefully [they won't] make the same mistakes."
As a foreman for the jail's hygiene crew, Morgan had more freedom than some. But because only select inmates are on work release or receive money orders from family, Morgan said the men decided to use their money to buy candy bars and cherry cheese danishes to share with the men on their block.
"It's hard that we don't see our family," he said. "We take it on ourselves to be our own family."
Even dinner was a little special on Christmas Day.
Deputy Warden Marc Masucci said the jail operates under normal procedures during Christmas, but that inmates were able to have two holiday-themed meals Wednesday.
They were served ham, green beans and mashed potatoes at lunch, with pulled turkey for dinner.
"Of course you feel that feeling of ... not being with your family members at Christmastime," he said. "But there's not much you can do in that situation. It's something that you have to face."
And while corrections officers certainly have more freedom than the inmates, Masucci noted that personnel also are away from loved ones on Christmas.
"Somebody has to be here 24/7. We're always open. ... A lot of places can close down for the holidays, but we can't do that," Masucci said.
Morgan said many of the inmates will have spent Christmas playing poker or card games and watching the "A Christmas Story" marathon on television, although they will have taken a break at noon to watch the Chicago Bulls face off against the Brooklyn Nets.
Those who have an artistic flair spend the day drawing, Morgan said.
He said he was even able to write a Christmas note to his fiancee, who is being housed on the prison's K block, to be delivered by a corrections officer.
Having spent several Christmases and other special days away from his three children and two stepchildren, Morgan said it's difficult for him, but he knows it's harder on her.
"I've basically been doing this for a long time," he said.
With seven other inmates on Morgan's block set to be released within the next two weeks, the holiday was not just a special day, but one day closer to being out of jail.
After four straight Christmases in jail, will this Dec. 25 be his last?
"Hopefully, you know," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.