At the Prince George's County detention center yesterday one of the young inmates took half an hour to have her hair done up carefully in braids. Dressed in her light blue prison uniform, she took some letters, a card and a photograph with her to meet her common-law husband for dinner.
The county corrections director, Arnett W. Gaston, had decided to allow inmates with other family members also in the county prison to have Christmas dinner together.
Gaston found two common-law couples and a brother and a sister. The six ate a traditional turkey dinner from metal trays on picnic tables.
"I think I would like to have Christmas dinner with my family," said Gaston. "Who does it hurt to do it?"
By all accounts, no one. "There was whooping and hollering," said one prison official.
"One of the women said she would be so nervous she wouldn't be able to eat."
Word quickly spread through the detention center of the special Christmas dinner.
Inmates in the women's section said nobody slept Christmas Eve. "We were up till 4 a.m. We were singing, screaming, all kinds of church songs and carols," one said.
Yesterday, at about 4 p.m., the three men were led from their section of the prison to a tiny activities room near the women's section. The women were already seated at two wooden tables. "You got big," Regina Jennings said to her brother, Sam Brown.
"I'm shaking, I got butterflies in my stomach. This is like a first date," said Willie Smith as he looked about him. He sat with his hands crossed staring, smiling, and shaking his head.
"I feel so good I don't know what to say."
A guard stood silently as the six talked and tried to find time to eat the turkey dinner.
"It makes me wonder what is coming up next," said Sam Brown to his sister.
The mood in the room seemed to alternate from awkwardness to casual joking. Outside, inmates passing by a window in the door waved or knocked. A prison photographer took snapshots.
By the time the hour passed only one of the inmates, Frank Washington, had eaten his dinner completely.
His common-law wife said: "If I'm still here on Easter, you can be sure I'm going to ask for this again."
After about an hour the dinner broke up. There were some hugs and some tears. "They only told us we was eating dinner. They didn't say anything about kissing," said one of the women. "I don't think he'll mind," she said looking at one of the guards.
The six, who are awaiting trial on various charges, milled for a few seconds in front of the activities room and talked quietly.
The scream of a woman in a nearby cell pierced the silence.
Willie Smith joked about asking if he could spend the night with his common-law wife.
Asked later if conjugal visits would be possible, corrections director Gaston said, "I can't be that much of a Santa Claus!"