Volunteers serve Thanksgiving meals and hope in the San Francisco jails

By Deacon Dana Perrigan

On a Wednesday morning a week before Thanksgiving, Janet Shi huddles with about a dozen other volunteers in front of San Francisco County Jail #2 at Bryant and Seventh streets. In just a few minutes, she — along with the others — will be led through electronically locked doors, up an elevator, along the corridors and into the pods where 250 inmates live.

Earlier that morning, the diminutive woman had left her San Mateo home to be part of what has become an annual undertaking — bringing a Thanksgiving meal to all the inmates in the city’s two jails who won’t be sitting around a table with their loved ones this year.

“I was excited on the drive here ,” says Shi.

She was also, she later admitted, a little scared. Having never been inside a jail, her idea of what it might be like was largely based on images from prison movies — hard, dangerous-looking men yelling from behind the bars of their cells. A parishioner at St. Mark’s in Belmont and St. Gregory’s in San Mateo, Shi had considered volunteering at a previous Thanksgiving, but didn’t follow through.

This time, she made it.

Julio Escobar, the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s restorative justice coordinator, gives some last-minute instructions to the volunteers: After serving the meals to the inmates, they are to say a Thanksgiving prayer. Following the prayer, they are then to ask the inmates what they are grateful for.

“We want to live the holidays with the people in here,” says Escobar, who coordinated the event. “We want to let them know that we are with them in their incarceration, and we do it by sharing Thanksgiving with them.”

Sharing Thanksgiving with the inmates, says Escobar, started five years ago. Initially, only a few pods of inmates received a meal. Later, as funding increased, more inmates were served. This year’s event, which cost $11,500 to serve 850 inmates, marked the first time since the covid pandemic that outside volunteers could be used.

Following a prayer by Father Rene Iturbe, the group breaks up into teams. Joined by several staff members, each team grabs a metal cart on which heat-retaining bags containing the individually packaged meals have been placed. Each inmate will receive a catered Thanksgiving dinner of roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, a dinner roll with butter and, for desert, a cookie.

Led by Alissa (Ali) Riker, director of programs with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, Shi and several other volunteers enter the pod where inmates experiencing medical and psychological issues are housed. Here, the inmates will not be allowed out in the common area to have dinner together. Instead, the meals will be passed through a slot in each cell door.

“It’s great to have the volunteers,” says Riker. “It’s so impactful for people to know that they haven’t been forgotten.”

Volunteers wheel Thanksgiving meals through one of the pods. (Photo by Yolanda Robinson.)

Working together, volunteers pull the cart through the pod, stopping at each cell to hand out a meal. Riker informs the orange-clad inmates that the Thanksgiving dinner was funded, in equal parts, by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Five Keys Charter School and the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Office. Riker, or occasionally a volunteer, then asks each inmate to name something for which they are grateful.

“For my life,” says a shirtless young man whose upper torso is covered with tattoos.

“For you guys,” another inmate says, clutching his meal.

“For my family,” says another.

Standing behind the doors of their cells to receive their meals, the inmates seem curious, friendly and grateful. At one cell, which houses two young women, one is not feeling well enough to get out of her bunk. Still, she manages a smile for the volunteers.

“I was a little hesitant at first to ask them what they were grateful for,” says Theresa Morse, a volunteer from St. Patrick’s parish in Larkspur who went into a different pod. “But they were so receptive. With very few exceptions, they had something to be thankful for. And they were grateful to us.”

Both Morse and Shi say they would gladly do it again.

“Absolutely,” says Morse.

“It was so rewarding,” says Shi.

The following morning, a similar scene — only on a larger scale –takes place at San Francisco’s County Jail #3. On this day, volunteers and staff gather to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the approximately 600 inmates inside the complex at Moreland Drive in San Bruno.

Donning masks and gloves, they form a large circle in the lobby of the jail. Yolanda Robinson, religious services coordinator with the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department, welcomes the group.

“I don’t have enough tongues to thank you for all you’re doing here today,” she says.

Next, Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin T. Fisher-Paulson gives it a try. He tells the volunteers that their service today is a measure of their empathy and humanity.

“Remember,” he says, “every single person in here is loved by someone, and there is an empty chair at their family table this year.”

Father John Jimenez leads a prayer, flanked by Julio Escobar and Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin T. Fisher-Paulson. (Photo by Melissa Vlach.)

Following a prayer led by Father John Jimenez, the volunteers break into teams and stand by their carts. As on the previous day, they make their way through electronically locked doors, down corridors and into pods. Bhavani Kludt, a group facilitator with Community Works, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Department to bring programs into San Francisco’s jails, takes her group into 5A.

“Whenever anything special happens — it’s wonderful,” says Kludt. “It’s great fun to do fun stuff with the guys.”

Inside, two rows of cells line one side of the pod. On the opposite side of the pod, a deputy keeps watch from a raised observation post. On the floor between, there is a common area with tables where inmates can sit and play board games when they are let out of their cells.

Because there is only one deputy to supervise this pod and the adjoining 5B, Kludt’s group joins another group to first serve meals in the other pod. Later, they will return to their assigned pod.

The inmates — most of whom are Black or Latino and young — seem to welcome the disruption to their daily routine. Some wave and smile to the volunteers.

“Thanks,” says a young man after receiving his meal. “God bless you.”

Another, when asked for what he is grateful, says, “I’m still alive.”

Two Latino men in one cell tell a volunteer in Spanish that they are from Guatemala, and far from the families they miss so much. Religious pictures adorn one wall of the cell.

Later, after the meals have been distributed and eaten, volunteers go from cell to cell collecting the plastic spoons and containers.

“I thought it went really well,” says Kludt, who took part in last year’s Thanksgiving dinner. “Every year, we always do a gratitude exercise with the guys — it’s good for them.”

Before the volunteers leave the pod, an inmate who was in court that morning returns to his cell. There are no meals left, but two volunteers leave the pod to find one. Returning several minutes later, one of the volunteers gives the inmate his meal.

“You probably don’t recognize me,” says the inmate, “but I remember you from juvenile hall. You used to volunteer there.” The inmate then tells the volunteer that he has been sentenced to federal prison.

It seems, for both, a bittersweet reunion.