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For Incarcerated Parents, Jail Offers Help Playing Santa

Jackson County Detention Center
Keisa Baker, a program services supervisor at the Jackson County Detention Center, wraps gifts to give to kids visiting loved ones in jail.

For the children of incarcerated parents, the holidays are stressful enough without Mom or Dad.

That’s why a new program at the Jackson County Detention Center is helping provide Christmas gifts for kids whose mothers are in jail.

“The children of the people incarcerated here, it’s not their fault,” Rev. Gene Purtle, the detention center chaplain, says. “A stigma is often attached to them because of whatever the situation is, and I think it’s awesome that we can show them as jailers and people like myself that are part of the church that we care about them.”

The Jackson County program is modeled on the national Angel Tree prison fellowship. Typically, the program isn’t done in jails because there’s such high turnover.

“Many of our people are here on minor enough things they’ll serve a few months to a year here, then go home,” says Purtle.

And that makes maintaining Christmas traditions important. This year, members of the Midtown Baptist Temple provided gifts to the children of 27 female inmates. Purtle hopes to include male inmates in the program next year.

Another long-standing tradition has detention center staff wrapping donated gifts for kids who visit the facility.

“My wrapping skills are terrible,” admits Joe Piccinini, director of corrections, “but fortunately, we have several people here who are very good at wrapping gifts.”

Piccinini says the gifts, which are donated from the Penn Valley Criminal Justice Department, help make the experience of visiting a loved one in jail less scary.

Purtle, whose position with the jail is unpaid, says he often hears inmates don’t deserve Christmas because they’re behind bars. But he says they’re missing the point, which is that most inmates will eventually be released.

“Each and every one of them, no matter what they’re in trouble for, they’re people,” Purtle says. “They’re people who care, they’re people who love their families. Their families love them.”

The detention center came under fire earlier this year as allegations of inmate abuse prompted an FBI investigation. That’s why programs like the holiday gift exchange are so important, Purtle says. They help build rapport between jailers and inmates.

City Union Mission and the Lutheran Ministries Women's Auxiliary also donated goodie bags with things like apples, oranges and candy bars to be distributed to inmates over the holidays.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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