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Christmas at the jail

Press Photo by Lisa Call Patricia Reiss, left, and Elena Vasser, right, both residents of Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, prepare a meal for inmates in the kitchen of the Southwest Multi County Correction Center in Dickinson, Monday afternoon. Reiss will be preparing a special Christmas Day meal at the center.

Though many families of inmates at the Southwest Multi County Correction Center will not be traveling to the jail to visit their loved ones, the facility has activities planned to bring a bit more cheer to the incarcerated.

"It is a stressful time for them but this is not their first holiday away from home," said Ione Kukowski, juvenile services director. "Many of them have been away from their family for several holidays... It's still very hard for them."

SWMCCC houses inmates for the U.S. Marshal's Service, members of a federal pretrial program, those nearing the end of their sentence with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and overflow for the North Dakota State Penitentiary.

"You ought to remember too that where they come from, their Christmases are often violent, they're often filled with a lot of pain, there is often a lot of alcohol and drugs and crime and this is actually probably a safer environment," said Loree Ivanets, SWMCCC's therapeutic services director.

Several members of the SWMCCC have worked together in planning activities to heighten the holiday spirit and help inmates give back to the community.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires certain programming for juveniles, and one such program incorporated into the holidays is the Restorative Justice program. Juvenile inmates were split into teams to make gingerbread houses.

"This year we combined the gingerbread house activity with Restorative Justice and how to give back to your community and restore the injustices of what they've done," Kukowski said.

The gingerbread houses will be donated to non-profit organizations for decorations.

First place winners in the contest received a $5 gift certificate to commissary, second place received $2.50 and each member of the third-place team received a soda.

Many of the inmates have children of their own.

"One of the local churches donates presents every year so the kids can wrap and send presents to their children," Kukowski said.

In conjunction with giving back to the community, activities are also held to honor one's heritage.

Ivanets said Native American drumming is conducted and those who wish to pay homage to their heritage will be making new drum sticks as well as painting a drum.

SWMCCC's Ukrainian community will also be observing some cultural traditions by weaving wheat in honor of the Ukrainian New Year.

"The boys tie three stems of wheat and you braid the ribbon ... then we take that to the Ukrainian New Year and they take it into the community," Ivanets said.

Doris Songer, deputy operations administrator and chief of security, said inmates enjoy several treats during the holiday season.

"I purposely introduced eggnog last year and this year because I want them to understand they don't have to drink alcoholic things and a lot of them had never had it," Ivanets said.

Treat bags consisting of homemade fudge, peanut butter bars, 7-layer bars, peanut brittle and stained-glass candy will be handed out to adults and juveniles at 1 p.m. today, Songer said.

Other individuals within the prison system are giving back, as well.

Elena Vasser, 24, of Bismarck and Patricia Reiss, 33, also of Bismarck, residents of Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, travel to SWMCCC each day to help prepare meals for local inmates.

For the women, the commute and hours spent in the kitchen can be a time to reflect and relax.

"These are ladies that are getting prepared to go out on the work release program," Songer said. "They are almost ready to go to work in the community, but maybe not quite, and this gives them a chance to show how well they can do."

All of SWMCCC's meals are prepared right in the facility's kitchen, often from scratch. The Christmas Day meal is a special one, consisting of baked cod in garlic butter, seasoned potato wedges, a small chef salad and cheddar bay biscuits.

"I know for a fact that a lot of adults and juveniles eat better while they are here, nutrition wise," Ivanets said.

Vasser said prior to cooking at SWMCCC she hadn't cooked, but has acquired a lot of culinary knowledge.

"I've done a lot of cooking, but you learn a lot still," Reiss said.

But, for Vasser and Reiss, the daily trip is about more than work.

"Coming out here is a way for us to get our foot back in the door or to the outside," Reiss said. "For me, getting away from the prison, I feel like I've accomplished something when I'm here."

Vasser looks at her Christmas holiday with selfless eyes.

"I'd rather not have my family come ruin their Christmas here, especially my daughter," she said. "It's her first Christmas, so I don't want her spending it in prison with me. I'd rather have her come the following weekend."

Reiss said she chose to work on Christmas.

"My family and my kids are doing their own thing, and so I chose to work because it makes it go by faster, it's easier," Reiss said. "You're helping somebody else's day."