BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — Daniel Tinsley tells his four-year-old companion Xamaya that the prison guards shoving fingers inside her socks are playing a game hide-and-seek. Then he takes the little girl’s hand and, together, they walk up a steep hill toward the prison barracks where her grandmother Debra Smith, the love of Tinsley’s life, is serving a life sentence for murder.
“You missed a lot of Christmases, but you’ll have more,” Tinsley, 59, tells Smith, 56. “They’re telling her she won’t ever come home, but I know she’ll come out.
“It’s written on paper, not written in stone.”
Tinsley is one of about nine families who traveled together to the upstate Bedford Hills Correctional Facility Sunday for a Christmas celebration between children and their incarcerated moms, courtesy of a free program called Time With Mom At Christmas.
Michele Mitchell, president of LadyCoach Transportation, spent about $3,000 of her own money to fund the free ride to the women’s prison, two hours north of New York City, to help families that cannot pay the cost to travel this Christmas.
“They get to be treated and pampered for the day, that was my goal,” said Mitchell. “This does my heart absolute joy.”
Brenda Corbett, 57, would not have been able to take her 12-year-old granddaughter Shazire Louallen and 17-year-old grandson Shazyaya Louallen to visit their mother Latoya without the free service, she said.
“I think it’s most important for her to be with the kids,” said Corbett, grateful for the chance to give her daughter a Christmas gift. “Her kids are the present.”
Instead of exchanging gifts, the Louallen family share a meal from the prison vending machines, talk and just enjoy being close.
“My favorite thing is, like, playing games and her doing my hair,” said Louallen’s daughter Shazire. Latoya’s favorite thing is teasing her little girl about getting a boyfriend.
“My mom is funny, sarcastic, and really generous,” said Shazire. “I miss her a lot.”
Xamaya, 4, also misses her grandmother, but she isn’t yet old enough to understand why Smith won’t come home with her at the end of the day, according to Tinsley.
“Xamaya cries,” Tinsley said. “She says, ‘I want to stay with you, I want you to come home.'”
So Tinsley’s happy when Smith and Xamaya abandon him for “girl time” in the children’s game room at the back of the Bedford Hills visiting center, and ignore him completely.
Tinsley knows how hard Christmas is for both of them. It’s hard for him too, Tinsley said, but spending time with Smith is completely worth it.
“It was meant to be,” Tinsley said. “I’m not no choir boy, but she was a blessing from god.”
Tinsley first met Smith back in 1982 when he was doing construction on a housing development on St. Paul’s Court in Flatbush.
He was immediately taken by Smith, who had beautiful green eyes and a wicked sense of humor, catcalling him when he took off his shirt on hot summer days.
On one of those summer days, inspiration hit, and he tied a rope into the Ginkgo biloba tree outside the construction site and swung himself across the street to land on her balcony, he said.
“If that rope would have broke, we’d never have been together,” Tinsley said. “We laugh about that now.”
The couple spent the summers of their five-year romance walking through Prospect Park and taking trips to Coney Island, Tinsley said.
But they had a falling out in about 1987 and Smith disappeared from Tinsley’s life for almost 25 years, until the day he ran into her sister and discovered Smith had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
That very night he sat up late writing Smith a letter, asking to become a part of her life again.
“I told her I really didn’t care,” he said. “I’ll be there for you until you come home.”
For more than a month, Smith told Tinsley not to commit himself to a woman who might never be released from prison, for a crime he says she did not commit.
“She said, ‘This is your opening for you to leave,'” Tinsely said. “I said I’m not going anywhere, I love you.'”
And finally, he convinced her.
“It was one of the passages in one of the letters,” Tinsley said. “I wrote, ‘It feels like I’m falling in love all over again,’ and that’s what got her.”
They have become one another’s lives.
The couple share as many of the daily routines typical to married couples as they can, with up to nine phone calls a day, monthly visits and, as always, letters. They ask one another small questions — What’s on the agenda today? How did you sleep last night? What are you going to have for breakfast?
Smith tells Tinsley about her work as a mobility aid to help other incarcerated women who have physical disabilities and how she shares as much of her food, which Tinsley sends on a regular basis, as she can.
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“She looks out for people, that’s her nature,” said Tinsely. “She doesn’t want anything back, she’s not like that.”
And Tinsley has become a father figure to her sons and daughters, whose own father was killed several years ago. They call him Pop.
Tinsley is always sure to photocopy the pictures he takes of Smith’s family because she’s not allowed to have actual photos.
Tinsley’s favorite task is taking care of Xamaya, whom he says is truly smart. She’s learning Russian from her next door neighbor and starring in her preschool’s Christmas pageant, which she insisted Tinsley attend.
At least once a month, Tinsley picks the small girl up from her mother’s house and takes three trains and a taxi to Bedford Hills, where they stop by a diner for a quick bite before catching a taxi to the correctional facility, which Tinlsey told Xamaya is her grandmother’s summer home.
Then he guides the small girl through security.
They wait for passes, fill out forms, hand over identification and a notarized letter from Xamaya’s mom saying she has permission to be there. He gives the mozzarella, grilled chicken, chips and snacks he’s brought for Smith to a guard who makes sure it weighs exactly 35 pounds before accepting it.
Tinsley and Smith walk through a metal detector, pick up Smith’s zip-locked bag of quarters, then prepare themselves to be searched. The pair spread their arms and legs as the guards run fingers along their waistbands and pull down their socks and stamp their hands.
Twice Tinsley was denied entry because a random search found traces of drugs on his hands, which he said occurred after hours spent in the waiting room. Tinsley started bringing gloves and hand sanitizer with him and hasn’t been denied access since.
Next, metal gates shut behind Tinsley and Xamaya and another one opens in front of them. They head up the hill to the visiting center, a large room fitted with tables and chairs and one large metal door that leads to the prisoners’ quarters.
“You just sit there and everyone looks at that door,” said Tinsley. “When she finally comes through, you can’t run to her.”
But when they finally meet, according to TInsley, “It’s like sunshine came out.”
Xamaya is pretty lucky to have Tinsley in her life because often times incarcerated women lose contact with men, which makes it more difficult for their children to visit, according to Mitchell.
“When women go to prison they don’t get the visits like the men do,” Mitchell said. “Women visit religiously but men sever the connection, the children live with relatives who don’t have the resources to visit.”
That’s why Mitchell partnered with Maxine Green of the Brooklyn salon Curly Dimension and the organization Our Children to pull together the daylong trip to Bedford Hills.
Curly Dimension hosted a toy drive that brought in $500 worth of Barbies, games, toy cars and more, which Mitchell handed out on the bus, telling the kids the presents came from their moms.
Mitchell also passed around donuts, sandwiches and croissants on the luxury bus, hoping to make the journey feel like a party.
“It was family-like, it was living, it was connecting,” said Mitchell. “I worked so hard, to finally get to the place where it was like, I’m ready, it was great moment.”
Mitchell is planning another trip on Mother’s Day, and hopes to expand her work reconnecting incarcerated moms with their families in the years to come.
“There’s so many families that are broken,” said Mitchell.
Tinsley remains hopeful, thanks to Smith’s good works and the pressing need for space inside the increasingly packed prison, that one day Smith will get released and they will be able to formalize their unofficial marriage with a wedding, he said.
But it can be hard to keep up Smith’s spirits during the holidays.
“I’ll shoot a diversion in there. I keep her laughing,” said Tinsley. “But you can only do that so many times. I let her get what she needs to say off her chest.”
And, as excited as Tinsley is about his new family, the time he spends with the woman he loves, and the prospect of seeing her released one day, he admits saying goodbye at their end of their visits never gets easier.
Smith often cries when they leave, Tinsley said. He knows because she calls him in tears minutes after Tinsley and Xamaya have left the prison.
“You can’t let them know how sad you are,” Tinsley said. “People come home. That’s what I tell her.”
Photos courtesy of Hugh Gladstone and Daniel Tinsley