Ulee Yanok, Verna Defoe, and Steven Parsi pose for a picture at Snake River Correctional Institution on Tuesday, Dec. 10. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)
ONTARIO – The sound of Christmas caroling isn’t typically associated with prison, but once a year, these caroling inmates don red and white Christmas hats and prepare and serve warm meals to area seniors.
The occasion was the annual Senior Christmas Meal at the minimum-security facility at the Snake River Correctional Institution. Held Tuesday, Dec. 10, the event featured a choir of inmates singing traditional songs such as “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Both inmates and seniors had positive words about the luncheon, which not only allows inmates to experience a bit of the holiday spirit, but also fosters a sense of normalization between them and the community they will someday rejoin as free men.
It’s also part of a cooperation between Snake River and the Malheur Council on Aging and Community Service, giving inmates – referred to in the system as adults in custody – an important role in serving seniors by preparing the meals for the Meals on Wheels program.
Alice Corrigan, a retired Snake River employee who worked in the safety office, attended the event and said that the yearly luncheon is important because it provides the community an opportunity to develop a new perception of the prison.
“So, they don’t have such an aversion to SRCI, and being so afraid of it,” Corrigan said.
As the sounds of a packed dining room meshed with the lyrics of “White Christmas” as inmates caroled in the corner, others darted around, smiling, with trays of food.
Oscar Frias, an inmate serving time at Snake River for attempted rape, said that the event gives inmates an opportunity to connect with the community and to celebrate the holiday season.
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“And to come together where love becomes a culture and we can honor each other and we are not separate and we are not divided and we come under one roof and break bread,” Frias said.
“I think that’s the meaning and the purpose of life. Where we can just for a minute love on each other respect each other and just function as a community, and I just really wanted to be a part of that,” Frias said.
“For us, in here, it may be a way where we can experience a piece of home even though we are away from our families and our loved ones, and we don’t get looked at a certain way,” he said.
“The choice to love and to keep your love on is a really powerful thing and when you choose it and walk in joy, it doesn’t matter what background you have, we are all human,” Frias added.
Through a partnership with the Council on Aging, inmates at Snake River are instrumental in getting food to seniors unable to leave their homes or prepare meals on their own.
Tom Longoria, senior program manager at the council, said that the unique partnership with Snake River, the first of its kind in Oregon, significantly reduces the cost per meal, allowing the organization to serve more people.
The food service staff at Snake River runs the Meals on Wheels program, and Longoria said that about 80 community members are enrolled.
In the last fiscal year, the partnership produced 11,034 meals that were cooked, packaged, and put into boxes at Snake River before being delivered.
Another 5,491 meals were also prepared at the prison and delivered to senior centers in Nyssa, Vale and Ontario.
“We cover all of Malheur County, but we provide that service in the Ontario, Vale and Nyssa communities where twice a week on varying days we have partnerships with the senior centers where folks can come and enjoy a hot meal. We come and pick that up here every day, Monday through Thursday, and deliver it to the correct locations, and our seniors, 60 and older, can come and enjoy a meal and socialize with their community,” Longoria said.
Vicki Brown, assistant food service manager at Snake River and the lead coordinator of the luncheon, has been running the event for two years.
“This event is one that everyone looks forward to. I think more so the AICs. And I think every year that the normalization kicks in, the better it becomes,” Brown said.
Gino Jackson, an inmate serving time at Snake River for sex crimes, said he has been participating in the luncheon for about three years.
“What I really like about it is that you really get to interact with the public and it gives us a feeling of acceptance,” Jackson said.
“And in this particular time of year, it gives you the sense of almost not being here in prison for that one day, or for these couple of hours,” Jackson said.
“For the guys that are going through some things during the holiday season, the guys that participated, it makes them feel a lot better about themselves and being ready to get out of here,” Jackson added.
An inmate at the minimum-security facility at the Snake River Correctional Institution waits as another inmate loads up a tray with food. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)
News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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