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“Christmas, it’s just another day in here — as depressing as any other day in prison,” said Stevin Faith about his 40th consecutive Christmas Day behind bars. “They’re forcing us to work in the kitchen right now, so at least maybe I’ll get some extra pieces of apple pie this year.”

Because of newly rising positive COVID test results throughout San Quentin, various housing units rotate quarantine status, leaving some regularly assigned kitchen workers unable to leave their buildings to serve food. Faith and others have been “volun-told” to report to the kitchen as substitutes.

The SQ kitchen continues to churn out meals each day, but the prisoners in their cells notice the deteriorating standards in food quality and service.

“You call THIS a Christmas dinner?” one man yelled out when he received his Dec. 25 supper tray — a questionable slab of meat posing as “roast beef,” a bland glob of mashed potatoes and a snub of a corn cob. “Fuck CDCR (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)! They don’t care about us, that’s for sure.”

But Christmas 2020 means something completely different for other San Quentin prisoners these days. Some see hope, joy and long-awaited freedom. 

“Every day is like Christmas for me now,” said Lee L. Xiong, who was recently found suitable for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) after serving 25 years of a life sentence.

“When I first came into the system as a teenager, lifers were never going home,” Xiong said. “I did so many years thinking this life inside was all there’d ever be for me. Now, time isn’t moving fast enough. Just let me out of here.”

Xiong estimates he’ll be released sometime within the next 45 to 60 days. Lately, once the BPH deems a person suitable for parole, it takes an additional 120 days or so to process them out. Xiong’s wife and family are waiting for the day they can pick him up outside the walls of San Quentin.

Robert E. Lee, a Black man in his sixties (yes, with that actual birth name), was denied parole in 2019. He’d been expecting his next opportunity to come in January 2021, but he recently received a letter that he will now be released on his Minimum Eligibility for Parole Date (MEPD) in April 2021.

“I keep looking at this paper and wondering if it’s real,” said Lee. He carries it around in his pocket, ready to show anyone who asks.

“I had a great Christmas this year,” he said. “I talked to everyone in my family on the phone. They’re all so happy to start getting things set up for me to come home to them.”

Lee has served over 27 years inside. “I’ve been through all the stages of emotion to get here — the hard-headedness, the anger, the denial, the acceptance, the inner peace — and now this.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.