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For incarcerated mothers, a visit from children is best Christmas gift

HAWKINSVILLE, Ga. -- For inmate Chartisia Jackson, Christmas came early and lasted only a few hours. It was when her two young sons, 8-year-old Darion and 7-year-old Jeremy, came to visit.

As they shared kisses, tears, and laughter within the austere walls and razor-topped fences of Pulaski State Prison, they were under the constant watch of guards and cameras.

The children could not bring gifts, but, to Jackson, it didn't matter.

''This is all I need," said Jackson, 26, who went to prison for armed robbery five years ago. ''I just need to be able to touch them and smell them and play. I don't need any gifts."

Jackson's children, along with those of four fellow inmates, arrived the weekend before Christmas on a bus provided by the Atlanta nonprofit group Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers. It is the closest the female inmates, behind bars for crimes ranging from check fraud to murder, will get to a Christmas with their families.

Sandra Barnhill, who founded the group in 1987, estimates there are 8,000 children belonging to Georgia's 3,395 women inmates. Most belong to single mothers. Most, like Jackson's, are left in the custody of their maternal grandmothers.

''The holidays are always more special, more poignant, because the tradition is that's the time for families to get together," Barnhill said. ''It doesn't matter about the circumstances. That's their mother."

For mothers serving hard time, the holidays tend to be the hardest times of all.

''Not being able to exchange gifts, not being able to see them open their gifts, that's real hard," says Bridgette Penn, 40, who has been in prison since 2000 for shoplifting. ''I do a lot of crying on Christmas and holidays."

Penn's 13-year-old daughter, Simone, sat sobbing with her head on her mother's shoulder.

Dejuan, Penn's 12-year-old son, was more upbeat. He keeps a calendar on his bedroom wall, marking an ''X" through each day his mother has been incarcerated. Though she'll be in prison for Christmas, she's supposed to be released next month.

''When you get out, it'll be 60 [months]," Dejuan told his mother. Asked why he started a calendar, he shrugged. ''I just wanted to see how many days it was going to take for my momma to come home," he said.

Prison visits reach their peak during the Christmas season, said Tom Chapman, Pulaski's warden. Most families come to see inmates on Christmas Eve or earlier, choosing to stay home Christmas Day.

''The female inmates care about their kids," says Chapman, a 22-year veteran of Georgia's prison system. ''It's very good for the inmates. It gives them some kind of hope that people on the outside care about them."

The prison tries to add a few touches of Christmas cheer to its routine, Chapman said.

Inmates are allowed to receive limited gifts through the mail, mostly staples such as soap, shampoo, and underwear.

Prison cooks serve turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie for Christmas dinner. A wooden reindeer hitched to a sleigh sits on the lawn just inside the barrier fence.

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