MAYVILLE - As the days of December pass each year, children wonder if they'll be on the "naughty" or "nice" list. Those who behave questionably fear Santa won't bring them anything but coal and tube socks.
Thankfully for the kids, the jolly old giant comes through anyway, and they can enjoy their favorite day of the year.
For adults, however, it doesn't always work that way.
Inmates and employees of the Chautauqua County Jail pause from their their kitchen activities for a photo with their Santa hats.
P-J photo by Scott Shelters
If their actions step beyond the realm of legal acceptability, they won't be home on Christmas morning to exchange gifts. Instead, they could spend the holidays in the Chautauqua County Jail.
For the first time, Leonard Wilson will spend Christmas in the facility.
He sat on a folding chair in the back row of a group of five inmates, staring off in the distance. He shook his head as he described what it's like to be a 49-year-old in jail. He has three kids whom he loves and misses.
"The crazy thing about being here is they don't get a gift from me," he said.
Wilson, who has been in the jail for five months, will turn 50 on New Year's Day. His parents, whom he communicates with through mail, have health problems.
"I feel bad because I'm not there to help them. I just want to wish them a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, but at the same time, I'd like to apologize for not being there," he said. "It's like merry Christmas, happy New Year and happy birthday, and you're in jail."
Reynaldo Miranda is another of the jail's 281 inmates. Incarcerated since April, he hasn't seen his 11-year-old daughter since. She sent him a letter last month for the first time since his incarceration.
"It's hard because I always look at her like she is a baby, but when I see her letter, her handwriting is better. Her spelling is incredible," Miranda said. "She tells me she misses me. She wishes I could be there. When you get that from your own child, it hurts."
Miranda's parents fell ill earlier in the year. He couldn't care for them from his jail cell, so they moved to North Carolina to be with his sister.
"I don't know what's going on with them, so it's kind of frustrating," Miranda said.
He doesn't have his parents' new address and hasn't heard from them in seven months.
Inmate Patrick Bowman communicates with his family regularly. He'll miss having Christmas dinner with them most of all.
He's not looking forward to today.
"It's a big difference waking up Christmas morning and seeing the kids open presents to seeing a bunch of grumpy, ornery men in here," said Bowman, who has two step-children.
Throughout his six months of incarceration, he has received visits from his girlfriend twice a week.
"The kids don't like coming up here; it makes them nervous," he said.
County jail visitation takes place on Wednesdays through Sundays. In total, 45 inmates may visit with loved ones on a given day by appointment. The jail allots each inmate two visitation hours per week.
Timothy Kelley receives visits from his newborn son, girlfriend and mom. He'll see them on today.
"I've spent quite a few Christmases in this place," Kelley said. "It's horrible. I've got a newborn son at home. My mom is old. I never know if she's going to be there next Christmas."
Alex Mancuso arrived at the jail five months ago for the first time. He has never spent the holidays away from home.
"It's not that great, but it is what it is," said Mancuso, who receives occasional visits from his family.
His father planned to visit on Christmas Eve. The two normally discuss family happenings and Mancuso's plans for when his sentence ends. He doesn't plan on spending Christmas 2012 in jail.
"I'll appreciate my freedom as soon as I get out the door," he said. "I'm going to try not to take the little things for granted again like just looking up at the sky. I miss that."
Todd Reardon has been in the jail for about a month, but this isn't his first time there. He's spent pretty much every holiday in jail at one time or another.
"I've been in and out of here on occasion," he said. "This will make the second Christmas, it was the second Thanksgiving and it will be the second New Year's. It's a downfall when you have three kids."
Reardon gets visits from his fiancee weekly. He thought she would be visiting him on Christmas Eve.
Lisa Hayes is one of the 22 women who resided in the county jail as of Dec. 20. She receives a visit from her son and sister once a week. She has two kids and writes her daughter, mom and other sister weekly on how she's doing in jail and how she plans to change her life after she gets released.
She has been in the county jail since June, but it won't be her first Christmas in jail.
"It's hard; it's time you spend with your family," she said.
Inmate April Leis' daughter and fiance come to see her on occasion. She communicates with her pastor, mom, aunt and spiritual mentor through letters.
"This isn't my first Christmas here, but it better be my last," she said.
Christmas 2011 will be her second at the county jail and fourth overall behind bars. She spent two Christmases in the state prison.
"It's hard to be away from the kids," said Leis, who has two children.
She got engaged in the jail five months ago.
"It was all right," she said of getting engaged while behind bars. "I would've preferred to do it on the outside though."
'I DON'T HAVE VISITORS'
According to county jail employees, inmates send and receive more mail during the holiday season than during the rest of the year. Some prefer that communication method. Others don't have a choice.
"I'm pretty much a loner. I hate being here any time of year," said a male inmate who wished to remain anonymous.
The man has to write to his family. They live out of state and respond regularly to his letters.
One female inmate prefers to not have any visitors due to a jail policy that states all inmates must be strip-searched following visitations.
"I don't like people looking at me that way," she said.
Instead of visiting with her mother, she writes her letters. She also writes to a male inmate who resides in the jail.
"He just talks about his life, his case and what his plans are if he gets out," she said.
The inmate hoped to gain her release following sentencing on Thursday.
"I'm strong-willed that I'm going home on Thursday," she said. "I've been good."
UNDERAGED AND IN JAIL FOR THE HOLIDAYS
As of Dec. 20, 24 male and female minors resided in the jail. On average, 35 minors are incarcerated there on a given day.
One young man named Zach has been in jail for two and a half weeks. He receives visits from his sister, mom and stepfather. This will be his first Christmas away from home.
"It's going to suck badly," he said. "It would make it a lot better if I was home for school and sports."
Ironically, Zach toured the jail on a school field trip in September.
An inmate named Codie arrived at the jail six weeks ago for his second stay. He hopes to be home in early January, but will not make it there today.
He gets one visit a week from his mom and grandma, who planned to see him on Christmas Eve.
"It's going to be difficult not being at home," he said. "I know my grandma is going to have a Christmas dinner when I get out. I know my family loves me."
An inmate named Isaac has been in jail for nearly two months and believes he'll be there for a while. He hasn't had any visitors or received any letters from family or friends outside of the jail.
"I've sent a couple letters to my mom. She just doesn't write back," said Isaac, who grew up in the foster system. "It's not like (my family is) states away; they're right in Jamestown. They must have better things to do."
MAKING THE MOST OF IT
Forty percent of the jail's inmates have a mental health condition. According to warden Captain Patrick Johnson, Christmas is a crucial time for his employees because of that fact.
"This is a time when people are depressed because they're not home with their families. Our staff has to be very diligent," he said. "It's very important that our staff interacts with them. We have a great staff here; they are just phenomenal at talking to inmates."
More than 100 full- and part-time employees make up the jail's staff, including both corrections and support workers. Several of those employees will be in jail today, but they'll just be earning their paychecks.
"The inmates are behind bars at Christmastime, but our officers are right there with them," said Captain Johnson. "They're away from their families too."
Corrections Officer Pete Dorman will work his third Christmas at the jail.
"In here, it's just like any other day," he said. "We've got to be a little more vigilant about the inmates' moods, but as far as the daily activities, it's the same as any other day."
Officer Dorman has a fiance and two young children. They have to schedule their holiday gift exchanges and meals at times when he won't be working.
"We make it work; we spread it out over a couple of days," he said. "They understand. They appreciate the time we do have."
Corrections Officer Kristine Samuelson has worked at the jail for nearly three years. She'll work today.
"We take turns, but I normally work most holidays," she said.
Her husband works in law enforcement. Their four children are accustomed to having at least one parent work on Christmas.
"It's hard to be away from them, but I like the people I work with," said Officer Samuelson. "I like my job, so it makes it easier. It's really not that bad."
She'll clock in at 7 a.m., but she'll be up long before then. Officer Samuelson planned to wake her children at 4:30 a.m.
"I make them get up to see what Santa Claus brought them before I leave at 6," she said. "Just seeing their faces and spending even that hour with them Christmas morning is worth it."
Upon arriving at work, Officer Samuelson will do what she does on a normal work day. However, she recognizes inmate depression will be more prevalent than normal.
"Hopefully their family will come visit, send them something or take a phone call," she said. "Just to be here and make their day a little bit better kind of makes you feel better yourself."
Kathy Collver did her best to keep the inmates in good spirits this week. Known by inmates as "Ms. Kathy," Ms. Collver organized a Christmas program that included the eight female inmates in her life-skills class. The inmates sang Christmas songs for other incarcerated women.
Additionally, inmates in one of the jail's recovery programs had the chance to stand up and say what they're thankful for during a midnight ceremony this morning.
Christmas at the county jail has featured special meals and events dating back to 1917, according to the Jan. 1, 1918, edition of The Grape Belt and Chautauqua Farmer.
On Christmas day 1931, inmates enjoyed a meat-loaf dinner and Christmas carols provided by the Mayville Baptist Church, the Dec. 26, 1931, edition of The Dunkirk Evening Observer reported.
Spirits may be brighter at the jail during the holiday season, but those who would rather not find out first-hand should try to stay off the "naughty" list.