- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

YACOLT, Wash. (AP) - At first glance, it seemed to be a typical Christmas party. A decorated tree in a corner and paper snowflakes hanging in the windows added a festive touch. Children painted pictures of snowmen and decorated sugar cookies. Wearing Santa hats, band members tuned their instruments and prepared to play Christmas music. Piles of wrapped gifts waited for children. Families waited in anticipation.

But the guards, security checkpoints and the 10-foot-tall concrete fences topped with menacing concertina wire provided a reality check.

This was no ordinary Christmas. This was Christmas in prison.

Sunday was the annual family Christmas party for the inmates at Larch Corrections Center, a minimum security prison about 20 miles east of Vancouver in a remote, rural area. Larch is home to about 480 male offenders.

When the inmates filed into the dining hall Sunday, Natalie Chown, 4, wearing a purple party dress, scanned the crowd looking for her father. When she spied him, she shouted and flung herself toward him.

Leaning down, Michael Chown scooped his daughter into his arms and embraced her. She nestled into him and clasped her arms around her dad’s neck. He smiled.

Chown’s family lives near Chehalis. They visit every week.

So does Roland Camps’ family. His wife, Rylee Camps, and their children, Azhia Camps, 11, and Julian Camps, 8, drive about 90 minutes from Winlock every weekend.

“It’s been tough, especially around the holidays,” said Roland Camps. “But it’s important for my kids to know Daddy’s still in the picture. Daddy’s here when you need him,” Camps said, his arms around his children.

Inmate Paul Adams held the hand of his son, Vincent Adams, 8, as they approached a table piled with wrapped gifts.

A few minutes later, Vincent ripped paper from a large box and exclaimed, “Hot Wheels track! I wanted this! I can put this together myself.”

Adams’ family lives in Vancouver and visits every other week.

But Tyrell Bennett, 23, from Tacoma, hadn’t seen his 3-year-old son for 16 months. He’s hoping to be transferred to Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Thurston County, a facility closer to home, so he can see his son and other family members more often.

“My parents are pastors. I was raised right, in a two-parent household, but I rebelled,” Bennett said.

Bennett had never been in trouble before, but shortly after his high school graduation, he was convicted of robbery in the first degree.

“I had to explain to my parents that it was nothing they did to put me in this path,” Bennett said. “It’s something that I did on a whim. I didn’t have a plan for after graduation.”

At Larch, he’s worked his way up to a teaching assistant job. He has completed 22 credits in small business management through Clark College.

Now he has a plan. With his release date about two years away, Bennett says he wants to start a nonprofit organization and speak with youth and “talk the same language they talk,” he said. “I want to prevent young men or women from making the same mistakes I made,” he said.

Plopped on the floor nearby, his son, Tyrell Bennett Jr., had opened a Mr. Potato Head gift and was attempting to attach its nose.

“Tomato Head!” he laughed.

“My son’s mother is my co-defendent,” Bennett said, adding that she is incarcerated in Purdy Women’s Correctional Facility in Gig Harbor. With both his father and mother in prison, Tyrell Bennett Jr. is being raised by his two grandmothers.

Bennett gathered up Mr. Potato Head’s various body parts, picked up his son and headed back toward the rest of his family.

“In school, you get the lesson and then the test. In life, you get the test and then the lesson,” he said. “If only I knew then what I know now. I’m like the spokesman for the Prodigal Son.”

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Information from: The Columbian, https://www.columbian.com

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