Christmas Behind Prison Bars: An Inside Look

Christmas in Prison

Originally published for Progressive Media and published through the Tribune News Service.

Wearing anything in Santa red will land you in solitary confinement -- it's a gang color, and a serious violation of prison rules. 

To give or receive gifts amongst inmates risks disciplinary action -- anything in a cell not sanctioned by the prison is considered to be "contraband."

Yelling "Ho, Ho, Ho...!" can incite violence.

Despite these restrictions, and many more, us prisoners are already celebrating this holiday season. In some ways, Christmas behind bars has the familiar feel of any other celebration of Christmas' past -- something many of us look forward to. But in other ways, this is the time of the year when we wish we didn't have to feel at all, as the season can be the hardest of "hard time" to serve.

The approach of the holiday season is always marked by the same signs, some as conventional as on the free side of the wall, some that never get any easier.

The newspaper is thick with the "best gifts" to buy, punctuated by TV commercials showing just how happy they'll make the ones you buy them for -- now feeling more like mockeries of what some of us will never experience.

The holiday music invades the radio and the off-tune humming of those around us, sometimes feeling as though we are trapped in a haunting, much too cheery and inescapable, music box.

Even holiday decorations start to crop up like color out of a black-and-white film. Tiny fake Christmas trees find a home on the desks of staff, a big fake one adorning the central area of our prison, complete with what seem like symbolically empty wrapped gifts. It's still uncertain whether it's there as an attempt to bring in some holiday spirit or to remind of us of how badly we screwed up and what we're missing because of it.

What makes the season most difficult is that most of us haven't lost the meaning of Christmas, despite the loss of our freedom. In fact, for many of us, its significance is more glaring than ever. We try not to show it, but you can see it on our faces.

During mail call it's most apparent, when you see a hope that one of the colorful greeting-card-sized envelopes in the pile is for us, bringing a much-needed connection with those we haven't heard from in a while. It's often followed by a crushed look when we realize that connection won't be arriving today.

This is the time of year when we miss family the most, even though we'll never say it to one another. But it's evident by the sharing of nostalgic stories of the good times we've had, the gifts we gave and received, and the look that warms over us, if only for a second, before we put our hard facades back on.

If absence of something in the free world makes the heart grow fonder, absence of family through imprisonment forced by the mistakes we've made, especially at this time of year, tenderizes the heart to putty. It threatens to consume. And that's the self-pity side of the equation. It gets far worse when you begin to think about what our incarceration is doing to those we've left behind by our behavior.

It's not all bad. We don't have to deal with the in-laws. Plus, the difficulties of the season are somewhat assuaged, or at least distracted from, by the prison system's attempts to bring Christmas to our side of the wall.

Food is the favorite method used to interrupt the heart. Some of us can receive care packages of food and useful items from our loved ones. For others, the prison expands canteen selections -- including items like white chocolate candy cane bars, winter mint cookies, and marshmallows. Additionally, many prisons will serve at least one special meal for the holidays -- honey-glazed ham this year here -- giving us at least the essence of home.

We may get one free phone call to our family. A local church choir may brave our place long enough to joyfully sing carols. Many of us will even secretly watch 'A Christmas Carol' or 'Home Alone' as our annual attempt to stay connected with our past.

Just like in the real world, it's a time when we look forward to sharing as much as receiving. We will send card and gift creations out to those we miss. We will even share gifts of canteen items and creations with one another inside, despite the rule violation.

We won't wear red or green, but we'll find ways to celebrate in our own way, if for no other reason than to not quite feel so alone and segregated from the rest of the world this time of year.

The holiday spirit behind bars is alive and, well, often painful. But for some of us perhaps it's good to have our holiday cheer mixed with a healthy dose of why we are here, away from our loved ones. This is the season of a remembrance. For many of us it's just the thing we need to spark the beginning of our path to rehabilitation and a future where we can show those we care about that we truly understand the meaning of Christmas and that its message is something that we won't soon forget again.

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