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From left, Eric Brown, Scott Bestler and Frank Rodriguez and the other inmates at the Dakota County jail received small packages with cards to send as well as snacks and a small Bible.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Christmas in Dakota County jail

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER
  • Star Tribune
  • December 22, 2012 - 11:11 PM

There's no garland or tinsel in sight, no tree with shiny baubles, not even a Christmas card taped to the wall.

But the holidays aren't forgotten at the Dakota County jail. Inmates' thoughts inevitably turn to their loved ones who are celebrating the season without them.

Scott Bestler's got a twinkle in his eye. With a little white powder in his hair and beard, he just might pass for Santa Claus -- if Santa had been in jail since Oct. 12 awaiting trial for drunken driving.

"I love Christmas," said Bestler, 27. "I'd rather be with my family than here.

"You walk in and smell the house," he recalled of Christmases past. "It's just great. Now that my Grandma's not able to cook anymore, my mom's tooken that role. It's a different house but still the same smells. I'm going to miss that a lot. Especially my grandmother. We have a pretty tight bond. She's 92 and I don't know how many Christmases she's got left."

Jail administrators, staff and volunteers do what they can to bring cheer to the 280 to 300 inmates who are locked up over the holidays.

"During the Christmas holiday, I think being in jail is clearly the place nobody wants to be, frankly, including staff," said Sheriff Dave Bellows. "We don't want to be hard-hearted. We're not. It's still Christmastime and we want to share that with the inmates."

On Dec. 15, each inmate in the adult and juvenile facilities got a package, filled by volunteers with two Christmas cards and stamped envelopes to send to their families, candy and fruit, some gospel readings and a small Bible. On Dec. 20, carollers sang Christmas songs with the inmates in each housing unit. On Christmas Day, there'll be a traditional meal, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberries.

"It's the only day of the year we take a break from bologna sandwiches," the sheriff said.

Frank Rodriguez III, 35, who's in jail awaiting trial on drug charges, hopes pumpkin pie will be on the menu, too.

"My mom makes pumpkin pie on Christmas just because she knows how much I like it on Thanksgiving," he said. "Since I was a little kid, I've always believed the holidays were about family, snow and being together. It's not to receive gifts, it's to enjoy. It's a good time of year. It's always been a good time of year for me."

Jim Bzoskie, pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church in Hastings, has been head chaplain at the jail since 1978 and coordinates the packages and carolers each year.

He leads a nondenominational service every Sunday. There won't be one on Tuesday, but Pastor Jim will shake each inmate's hand as he has every Christmas.

"It gives me that personal one-on-one with them," he said. "Isn't it the small things that make the biggest difference?

"Their punishment is that they're there," he explained. "Let's not make it worse. Let's do something to turn their life around and not make them bitter."

Decorations and Christmas trees aren't allowed in the jail, Bellow said. Inmates wear jail-issued clothing and aren't allowed to receive gifts from home -- not even socks and underwear.

"Again, it's a secure facility," he said. "Many things on a Christmas tree are fine in a conventional household. Put them in a jail and they turn into weapons. That's not going to happen."

On Christmas Day, the inmates will be allowed to spend time in the jail's day room and less time on lockdown, the sheriff said. There won't be any programming, such as substance abuse or GED classes, and they'll be allowed to watch TV during the day, something that isn't permitted most days of the year.

The holidays also give inmates more time to think about their lives and what landed them behind bars.

"[I'm] upset because I can't spend time with my family, but for the most part I'm taking care of what I have to," said Eric S. Brown, 25, who's in jail after violating his probation on a domestic assault conviction. "[I'm] about to get my GED, tomorrow," he said 10 days ago.

"I'd rather be with my family opening presents than waking up at 7 in the morning and eating breakfast around strangers ... where some people don't even like you. You can feel the tension in the air sometimes."

Brown found out shortly after he went to jail six months ago that he has a 2-year-old son named Benjamin. Asked what he will teach him when he gets out, he said: "Don't spend time in jail."

Oddly enough, none of the three inmates who agreed to sit down for an interview said they regret being arrested and jailed.

"At the rate I was going, I don't think I would have made it," Brown said. "Selling drugs, violence. I think if I didn't get arrested, I would have continued that and had worse things happen -- gotten killed, died from a drug overdose. I think I really needed this break. I think everything happens for a reason. Six months, it's enough time to think."

Each of the inmates did, however, want to send a message to their families for Christmas:

"I love you and I'll see you in February," said Brown.

"I love you, see you soon. I love you, Grandma," said Bestler.

"Love you, miss you. I'll be home sooner or later -- hopefully sooner," said Rodriguez.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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