Victoria A. Garzes signs a holiday card for inmates during the Texas Inmate Families Association's Christmas party in New Braunfels. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Mariah Graves is getting married on Wednesday. Her groom has been in prison since 1991, one year before Graves was born.

Sentenced to death originally, Miguel Angel Martinez is serving out a life sentence at Hughes Unit in Gatesville after his capital murder conviction was commuted. Graves started writing and visiting him after reading about his case online. Martinez, now 45, was 17 when he was put on death row for his involvement in a series of killings that took place in January 1991 in Laredo.

Graves, 26, was one of about 20 loved ones of incarcerated people who on Thursday attended the Texas Inmate Families Association’s (TIFA) Christmas party in New Braunfels. Since getting engaged in June, she’s become involved with a number of support groups for friends and families of inmates, including the New Braunfels chapter of TIFA.

Victoria A. Garzes (left) and Mariah Graves sign holiday cards for inmates. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

She receives valuable resources from the groups ranging in purpose from criminal justice activism to education and support for families of prisoners. More important, she said, her peers in these groups support her without judgment.

“Even people I’m closest with, they still are very judgmental. They don’t understand, they don’t want to hear about it, they don’t want to know,” Graves said. “That’s when I started reaching out to other people who were going through the same thing.”

TIFA’s 20 chapters throughout the state host Christmas parties every year. Shelley Eklund founded the chapter in 2017 after her son entered the criminal justice system and now serves as chair.

Shelley Eklund, chair of the Texas Inmate Families Association’s New Braunfels chapter. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

For Eklund and other family members of incarcerated people, the holidays can be a sobering reminder that their families aren’t whole.

“The Christmas party is a happy time,” Eklund said. “We’re just smiling, laughing, and having a good time. When you have loved ones who are incarcerated, you always have guilt about being happy. It’s a hard struggle that you deal with, so this allows us to have a few minutes to just have fun.”

At the party at Peace Lutheran Church in New Braunfels, a few teenagers picked out Christmas gifts for themselves and their siblings, many of whom have not known a holiday season with their fathers. Attendees exclaimed “bingo!” as their cards filled up, and the room erupted with cheer when names were drawn for door prizes. Hugs, kisses, and “I love yous” were shared among people whose only connection is that their fiancés or sons are behind bars.

The U.S. incarcerates the highest percentage of its population in the world, with more than 2.1 million in the prison system nationwide. The country’s correctional population – including those paroled or on probation – totals 6.6 million, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Texas is among the states with the highest rates of incarceration. More than 147,000 men and women were incarcerated in state-supervised facilities as of August 2016, with more than 9,500 of those inmates’ convictions originating in Bexar County, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

One in two adults in the U.S. has had an immediate family member behind bars, a recent report by the bipartisan organization in collaboration with Cornell University found.

Though recent statistics point to a downward trend in the prison population, the report shows it cuts across more segments of the population than one might think, and the impact of incarceration is pervasive – causing emotional and financial stress on families, said Jennifer Erschabek, TIFA’s executive director.

Established in 1996, TIFA is a nonprofit organization whose main aim is to stop recidivism by helping families through their loved one’s prison sentence with education and advocacy. That entails preparing families for parole, the sharing of public documents, legislative updates, and custody and child support – limiting or rendering moot the need to pay attorney fees. The emotional support, however, might just hold the most weight.

During the New Braunfels chapter holiday party, attendees wrote notes on Christmas cards, sending personalized messages to loved ones and words of encouragement to inmates they’ve heard of through word of mouth – those who are either estranged from their families or have been in prison so long that many of the people they were closest to have died.

“It just means so much to these men who don’t get any mail at all,” Erschabek said. “To our loved ones, it’s nice to see that it’s more than just their family out there supporting them – it’s actually … community of people – because they feel so isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.”

In addition to the 40 or so cards signed at Thursday’s party, the New Braunfels chapter next week will send about 800 holiday greetings cards to the roughly 600 Comal County inmates and 200 Caldwell County inmates, Eklund said.

Helen Hinojosa, of Selma, wrote down five names on a cardboard star ornament – one for each point of the star – and adorned a miniature Christmas tree at the party. One of those names was Jesus Christ. The four other points represented her three nephews and grandson who are all in jail.

An advocate for people who entered the criminal justice system as children, Hinojosa said she heard about a 16-year-old behind bars who had become depressed and wanted to give up. She got his address and sent him an uplifting note.

He wrote back. “It’s people like you who give me hope,” she recalled him writing. “This card and you writing to me is like water to a withering flower.”

Since founding the New Braunfels chapter, Eklund said membership has swelled to 80, and meeting attendance regularly reaches about 30.

The San Antonio chapter comprises 120 members, and about 20 attend each meeting. Eklund, who lives in Bulverde, is also presiding over the San Antonio chapter’s business in the interim while that chapter undergoes a change in leadership.

The chapter is holding its monthly meeting and annual Christmas party Wednesday at TriPoint A Center for Life, 3233 N. St. Mary’s St. The festivities begin at 7 p.m.

Graves, who lives in Austin and drives about 45 minutes to see her soon-to-be-husband at his Gatesville penitentiary, said without organizations like TIFA, she would not have known about prison marriage seminars, which will allow her to spend the whole day with Martinez – 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – in January.

Weekends are the only times she gets to visit him, so she won’t get to see him this Christmas, which falls on a Tuesday. But she’s hopeful – his case has garnered worldwide interest after being featured in a Netflix documentary series, and a petition calling for him to be freed is circulating online – for a future holiday with him unshackled from the prison system.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.