But for the context, you might think Al Saunders looks a bit like Santa Claus, especially if it’s Christmastime and you already have St. Nick on the brain. His thinning hair is a pure white, as is his short beard, and his eyeglasses are more or less a fit. The crowning touch, though, is his white walrus mustache, which curls up at the ends like a ski jump. He could pass—but for the context.
The context is the visiting room of the Maine State Prison (MSP), the state’s maximum-security penitentiary, where the 69-year-old Saunders has resided since 1988 when he began serving a 50-year sentence. With time off for good behavior, he says, he’ll be out in three-and-a-half years. He is a New Jersey native (“I moved up here to get away from the crime,” he jokes) and a veteran; he served a tour in Vietnam, which he claims is responsible for both his bout with prostate cancer and the fact that he’s been married five times. He met his current wife after corresponding with her for six or seven years, and married her in this very room, right next to where a modest Christmas tree now stands.
Yes, Christmas is everywhere, even in the MSP, home to 900 or so of what are said to be the most dangerous people in a state of 1.3 million. Officially, that tree is the only holiday decoration in the entire prison; inmates are not allowed to put things up in their cells. They manage to find ways around that, though, as inmates will. “We usually hang our cards up,” Saunders explains. “Inside the doors, so they can’t see them. We’re not supposed to have anything on our walls. You can’t even put up a picture of your wife.” He says he gets about 30 Christmas cards every year; it’s a big door.