Several Christmas cards stand propped open on the upper level of a narrow, metal bunk bed.
It’s tucked away in the corner of cell housing 10 other inmates. Other items, including a box of crackers and toiletries, line the shelf, but none are as important to 32-year-old Joey South as the cards sent to him from his family on the outside.
“What makes your time a little more at ease is having a family that still loves you, unconditionally,” South said. “Some of these people in here – they aren’t that blessed. Or some of them have made choices where their family just can’t deal with them no more.”
In the middle of the cell stands a small green Christmas tree made out of paper. His wife, Gingi, spent several hours crafting it so he could have his own tree in his cell.
South feels fortunate to have family in his corner despite having made some bad choices. He was arrested nine months ago and charged with numerous gun thefts, use of a stolen credit card, burglary and possession of K2, a synthetic version of marijuana. He was on parole, so the felony charges landed him back in jail as he awaits a trial. He admits to the credit card abuse and drug possession, but denies the gun theft.
A native of Bridgeport who was raised in Chico and attended school in Decatur, South has family and friends all over Wise County.
He’s a large, strong man, with a chest like a barrel and hands as big as frying pans. He works out every day. Despite his size, he’s soft-spoken and careful with his words.
“The thing about Joey is if you pass him in the hallway and ask how he’s doing, he always says he’s blessed,” said Wise County Jail administrator Rick Denney. “He’s big enough he could cause some problems if he wanted to. He’s not like some of the other guys who just kick their door every day, yelling and screaming, causing the staff problems that we have to deal with on a regular basis.”
This is the time of year when some inmates are on their worst behavior. Denney has more than 25 years experience working in the prison system. He took over last year as administrator of the Wise County Jail in Decatur.
“They do it all the time, but around the holidays it gets worse,” Denney said. “The suicide rate also goes up. We haven’t had any here, but you have to always be on alert for that. People can’t see their families, and it makes them depressed. Staff has to really pay attention when they do their rounds.
“They are going through a hard time right now. It’s a hard place to be anytime, and especially during the holidays. (South) is lucky he does have a supportive family behind him because a lot of them don’t, and all they can do is act out.”
“These are the times when people act their rowdiest,” South added.
South knows the choices he’s made affect his family most, even though he’s the one stuck in jail.
“I got a son who is about that age where if he doesn’t have a father in his life for guidance he wants to act out. I think a lot of the reason for that is because I’m in here. He doesn’t know how to accept it. He’s wanting attention.”
South has four children, ages 10 to 18.
“They get to visit me on Tuesdays and Saturdays,” he said. “That’s a blessing.
“I know it’s hard for them – probably harder than it is for me. They don’t understand that this is just a minor setback for a major recovery. It’s important to be out there and help them get through that and cope with the everyday things. It’s rough. But it’s not forever.”
The jail works with churches and businesses to do what they can for inmates during the holidays.
“We coordinate with some churches to bring in home-cooked meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Sheriff David Walker said. “We try to do as much as we possibly can.”
Valu-Rite Pharmacy Christian Books and Gifts of Bridgeport donates a pair of Christmas cards to every inmate so they can send cards to family or friends. A week before Christmas, South had already sent out seven.
“I got a friend who can draw, and he helped me make some extra cards,” he said.
But besides the cards and the meals, there’s not much more the jail can do.
“Christmas is pretty much just another routine day,” said Denney. “With the different custody levels, it’s hard to get all the inmates out to do a group event. In a prison, you can have anybody who wants to attend events. But we have so many different levels here. There’s minimum, maximum, females, males and trusties. You can’t just get them all in a group and have a big show or something. We are limited to what we can do for them.”
South’s good behavior has earned him the right to be a jail trusty.
“I get to help with a lot of things,” he said. “I get to serve lunch, make sure the jail is clean and sanitary. We keep the kitchen clean and do laundry. Whatever they ask us to do.”
The hallways are a maze; they all look the same. The trusties keep every inch of the floor and the corners as clean as a hospital room. South shares his large cell with other trusties.
Besides family, he also leans on faith.
“I rely on faith and reading the word,” South said. “And just being positive. Not letting no one get to me. If somebody tries to diss me, I just accept it.”
Drug use affected his life and decision-making on the outside.
“I was pretty hooked on K2,” he said. “I know it was illegal at one time, but it’s been made illegal. That stuff is like crack or meth or any other kind of dope. I lost my focus. I could of been better off without it.”
Getting clean in jail, and the discipline it’s brought to his life, has made a difference.
“Being in here has turned my life around,” he said. “I’m grateful. There was something in God’s plan for me. I was off track. Somewhere or another I took the wrong road.”
South even married Gingi during his current stint in jail. His mom stood in for him.
“We had what’s called a proxy marriage,” Gingi said. “We didn’t know how long he’d be in there, so we wanted to go ahead and get married while we could. He’s promised me a big wedding when he gets out.”
“She’s been to every one of my court dates,” South said of his wife. “She gets to come and see me every week. It’s always a blessing. I see people struggling in their marriage and with their family while they’re in here. It makes them aggressive. Makes them act out, lash out.”
“It kills me seeing him in there,” Gingi said. “And not knowing when he’ll get released is so hard on both of us. It hurts to see our kids not get to spend time with him. You can’t explain what it’s like losing this time with each other. But at least we do get to visit.”
Their next visit was planned for Christmas Eve.
“There are trusters, lifters and weights in this world,” South said. “I don’t want nobody in my life that is going to bring me down. I need trusters and lifters. People who are going to keep me positive. That’s kind of how I think. If someone is being negative I turn and go the other way. I have to … Jesus gives us our path. It’s up to us whether we stay on that path or steer off into the bar ditch.
“I’ve changed in a lot of ways. You have to start somewhere, whether it’s out there or in here.”
“He’s the rock of our family,” Gingi said. “This is the time of year when we’d be doing so much together. But he does have a strong support system out here and a lot of people who love him. I feel for those who don’t have that.”
For now, South has his cards lined up on top of his narrow, metal bunk, and his small paper tree situated in the middle of the cell. Those cards, and the people who sent them, are helping him stay positive during Christmas in jail.