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In this season of compassion, spare a thought for the prisoners

During the weeks between Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas I always recall warm childhood memories of the season: My parents preparing baskets for the needy, special decorations, shopping for gifts and happy family and friends who came to visit.

This is also the time of year I think about the more than 2 million prisoners held in U.S. jails and prisons, each of whom likely has multiple family members who sorely miss them during the holidays.

Yes, those convicted of crimes need to be locked away for our protection, especially those guilty of violent crimes and the career criminals. But realize that the United States incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world. Why that is can be the subject of a future column. Right now, I want to stress that showing compassion for prisoners during the holidays is not being soft on crime or pro-criminal. Pity and identifying with the plight of others are important human emotions.

My thoughts on this were stoked by a recent essay written by a New Jersey State Prison inmate named Tariq MaQbool. He’s serving a 150-year sentence for kidnapping, armed robbery and a double homicide. Is he right where he should be? You bet he is! But his essay, entitled “Tackling a Huge Taboo: Sexual Desire Behind Bars,” made me think.

Reality, MaQbool declared, is not like you see on TV programs or movies filled with “terrible jokes about homosexuality and prison rape.” Reality for prisoners, he says, is about profound loneliness and loss of that human contact we all crave.

MaQbool wrote prison inmates remain human beings with normal desires for intimacy, a chance to visit with partners and family and engage in private conversations.

MaQbool reminds us that 20 years ago, 17 states offered what were called “conjugal visits” for prisoners and their loved ones. The visits were seen as a way to ensure an inmate’s good behavior and help curb violence within the prison.

Today, only four states — California, Washington, New York and Connecticut — offer what are now called “extended family visits” or “family reunion programs.”

These visitations can stretch over several days and are held in specially outfitted trailers or family cottages. They have extra bedrooms so children or close family members can participate. There is a communal area stocked with G-rated DVDs and various board games. The atmosphere is designed to tempt the inmate with a taste of normal family interaction. It’s thought that prisoners who stay connected to family members will find it easier to re-enter society.

Left now with only phone calls to the outside world, the unmarried MaQbool writes, “We all struggle with a deprivation that feels like castration. I can also tell you that being lonely and sexually frustrated can lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression and even violence.”

MaQbool says that at his New Jersey state prison, ironclad rules against “lewd behavior” prohibit touching a visitor who is not a spouse. If you are married contact in the open visitor’s room can’t be too intimate.

“You can briefly hug or kiss at the beginning and end of a visit only. If you hold your wife for too long, or you kiss her too passionately, you can be charged with a lewd act.” MaQbool says punishment included a stint in solitary confinement for one of his friends, an elderly married inmate. (A spokesman for the prison says solitary is now no longer practiced there.)

If there is room on your holiday compassion plate this season, you may want to include a thought for the millions of convicts, and those incarcerated while waiting trial, who will have no holiday cheer. Yes, their situations are often due to their own bad decisions, but they are still people in need of human kindness.

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