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Santa spreads holiday cheer at jail

Lake County Sherriff Chief Jennifer Witherspo(center) delivers some presents annual Lake County Jail Christmas party Waukegan December 22 2012. |

Lake County Sherriff Chief Jennifer Witherspoon (center) delivers some presents at the annual Lake County Jail Christmas party in Waukegan on December 22, 2012. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 26, 2013 6:03AM

Few places could be bleaker than jail over the holidays. But for a several hours on Saturday, a holiday spirit lit up the joint, as children of those under lock and key at the Lake County Jail in Waukegan received some special treatment, when Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived to hand out toys and hugs.

Crammed into the jail’s small lobby in downtown Waukegan, a desultory crowd of visitors looked on as children, who descended from upper-floor visits with moms, dads and other relatives or family friends were suddenly treated to new toys from Toys for Tots and goodie bags filled with candy and fruit. Parents received frozen turkeys donated by area mayors.

“It’s certainly a tragedy that so many families are separated this time of year, that they have to come to jail,” said Waukegan Mayor Robert Sabonjian. “We’re hopeful this is the last time they have to do that and that next Christmas they’re at home together with their loved ones.”

The annual event, offered by the jail in conjunction with Mary’s Mission, was also attended by new Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, Waukegan Police Chief Dan Greathouse and Jennifer Witherspoon, chief of inmate and diversion programs at the jail.

Greathouse, a 25-year police veteran, said the festive occasion offered a stark reminder of certain “collateral damage.”

“We have to remember the loved ones behind every arrest,” Greathouse said.

Malinda Matthews of Waukegan and her daughter British Nash, 8, who clutched a new doll tightly to her chest, had just visited Matthew’s fiancee, who has been locked up for two months on a charge of arson for burning some of his belongings after a domestic quarrel, Matthews said.

“It’s depressing,” Matthews said. “We visit every week and talk on the phone, but it’s better when he’s home.”

Another mom said she left her children at home because their father didn’t want to “let them see me up here like this.”

Jacyne Idleburg of North Chicago brought her sons, 6-month-old Ralph and 8-year-old Eric, to visit Ralph’s father. Eric stared at his new toys, including street hockey sticks, while his mother mused on holding their lives together.

“I just pray every day for our family and that everything will be okay,” Idleburg said.

“We just want to show the men and women incarcerated here that somebody cares about their families,” said Mary Lacey, founder of Mary’s Mission. “We understand that just because you’re in jail doesn’t mean you’re going to be there forever.”

About 650 people are currently incarcerated in the Lake County Jail, according to Witherspoon.

Santa Claus, played by Bruce Popelka of Park City, and Mrs. Claus, Kris Brown of Park City, said they received no special training for their jailhouse stop.

“We just bring a smile for everybody − and a candy cane,” Popelka said.

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