What It Means to Spend the Holidays Behind Bars

Incarcerated writers reflect on the pain, joy, and other complicated emotions associated with getting in the so-called "holiday spirit" in prison.

snow on a chain link fence
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What It Means to Spend the Holidays Behind Bars

Incarcerated writers reflect on the pain, joy, and other complicated emotions associated with getting in the so-called "holiday spirit" in prison.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Introduction and conclusion by Chris Blackwell.

No two prisoners experience the holidays the same way. Some of us eagerly embrace the holiday spirit, happy for the temporary respite from our typically not-so-cheerful daily lives. But others isolate and sink into depression, consumed by thoughts of what this season could be. I’m one of the latter.

I used to work in the prison chapel. It was a great job, until the holidays came around. Christmas was the hardest for me. My first year there, the chaplain showed up one day with boxes overflowing with colorful lights and shiny tinsel. “Let’s cheer this place up!” he said with a smile.

My coworkers looked like kids on Christmas morning as they dug through the decorations. But not me. I respectfully declined and made my way back to our offices. Not long after, the chaplain came in and asked me what was wrong, apparently shocked by my reaction.

I told him it was nothing, that I just wasn’t into it and had work to catch up on. That wasn’t the whole story.

In the free world, Christmas was my favorite day of the year. But being in prison— separated from my family—made the holidays unbearable. The whole month of December was hard to stomach. Everyone on TV seemed to be embodying the Christmas spirit. It brought on a depression I could hardly contain. I missed my family—and I hated myself for making the mistakes that had put me in prison.

If I’m being honest, I still hate Christmas on the inside. But when I take a step back, it is amazing to see individuals of all beliefs and backgrounds coming together to share moments of kindness at the end of the year. The memories we create during the holidays often become some of our fondest—and that’s as true for us in prison as it is for those on the outside. I’ve asked some of the guys I live with to share their experiences of the holidays behind bars. Here they are:

A Moment of Mercy, by Raymond Williams

I was 17 my first Christmas in prison, and I spent the day in solitary confinement. Ironically, it was in these harsh conditions that I found a brief moment of mercy that I remember to this day, 25 years later.

I had already been in solitary for four months at the time. The only regular human interaction I had was talking with the older prisoners through the doors. As the only minor in solitary, I found myself subject to occasional hazing from the older prisoners who enjoyed exploiting my gullibility for laughs. So, when I heard the guards were giving us a Christmas gift, I thought they were pulling my leg. I didn’t believe them, but I would soon discover the joke was—as usual—on me.

My cell was at the end of the unit, which prevented me from seeing the comings and goings of the other prisoners and guards in the pod. But I had grown adept at making sense of what was happening just by listening. To my surprise, on Christmas Eve I heard the guards opening the feeding slots in doors, saying “Merry Christmas,” then quickly slamming them shut again. Door by door, they worked toward my cell. Finally, the slot on my door opened, and I saw a guard holding out a white paper bag. “Merry Christmas,” he said, with a softness in his tone I was unaccustomed to.

Cautiously, I stepped toward the door and grabbed the bag. Inside I found a candy cane, assorted hard candies, toothpaste, a few small cookies, and peanut brittle.

The guard left, and I sat on my bunk and started to cry. I cried because I was a kid, alone, in prison, in solitary, on Christmas Eve. I cried because that candy, that unexpected moment of mercy, broke through walls inside of me that no amount of punishment would ever penetrate. I cried because in the darkest moment, on a day when so many other kids were experiencing joy in their loving homes, I was not completely forgotten.

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Hot Beverage Holidays, by Aaron Edward Olson

The small marshmallows sit atop a thick froth, packed together like pillows on a blanket. A steam carrying the unmistakable aroma of cocoa betrays the rich chocolate hiding below the surface. I clutch the insulated plastic mug in both hands, holding it inches from my face, not allowing any of the smell to escape. It’s more than just a cup of hot chocolate. For me, it’s the holidays.

This season is tough for many. The traditions of home life are absent in prison, replaced by new, less memorable ones. With family gatherings gone, a pick-up game of cards usually has to suffice. A few of the fellas will take seats around the table, filling places that once belonged to the ones I love and cherish. Each card played helps to pacify the longing to be free from these prison bars, so I can once again spend moments like these with meaning.

It’s evening, and I’m alone on my steel rack with my mug of hot cocoa. Earlier in the day, it was filled with hot spiced apple cider. That may sound fancy for prison, but the seasonal drinks are all instant—overpriced pouches of powder that I have to buy with funds from my commissary account. But I’m willing to pay because these drinks are that important to me this time of year.

It’s not about the quality of anything here. It’s the act, the motions, the tradition, all of which began after my arrest 17 years ago. My first holidays in prison were marked with tears, absent the stockings, presents, freshly cut Christmas tree and family dinner that define the season for so many. Now I’ve made my own tradition of joy and consistency that I look forward to each year of my confinement. Although the drinks are available year-round, I try to save them for this time of year, and I never splurge for marshmallows outside of the holidays.

Eager to taste what I’ve been smelling, I bring the hot chocolate to my lips, sipping a bit too strongly and scalding my tongue. I may have lost some taste, but I laugh at myself because I feel freedom in this clumsy mistake. As the cup cools, the melted marshmallows merge with the froth. With the last drink, satisfaction comes, and the holidays feel complete.

A Christmas Competition, by Antoine E. Davis (AD)

The supervisor promised a worthy prize for the work group that made the best Christmas tree display from scratch. All 28 prisoners in my program gathered around our boss and listened to him lay out the rules:

1) We could only work on our trees during breaks.
2) The tree must be completed a week prior to Christmas.

We broke from the huddle and the innovative minds of incarcerated men went to work.

As the competition went on, the entire shop worked our jobs while making time to poke fun at the groups whose trees weren’t coming along so well. Somewhere down the line, there were rumblings of guys being sent on “secret missions” to swipe ideas and materials from other stations. In response, we started assigning lookouts to sound the alarm on any intruder who might stray too close to our display.

After a few weeks of arts and crafts, the Christmas trees were complete and the judging began.

My group’s tree was placed in a 4-foot case made to look like a brand-new toy in a box. The tree was wrapped with strips of yellow, green, and red toilet paper that we’d colored with markers. A star coated in silver glitter sat on the treetop, backgrounded by a painted red brick house sitting beneath a night sky. Paper snowflakes of all sizes gently swung from the inner lid of the display. Small gifts and candy canes sat under the tree, and we stuck a “Sale $9.99” tag at the top.

One of the other stations had created a Santa Claus riding on a sled led by six reindeer, as presents fell out of his big red bag. Another had built a fireplace next to a Christmas tree decorated with blooming colors.

The staff-turned-judges passed by each display, while the workers talked up their trees like professional salesmen. In the end, our group tied for first place—an outcome that many of us protested. Although we had lost supreme bragging rights, our complaints were silenced when our boss handed out big bags of candy.

In my 14 years of being incarcerated, I had never experienced a holiday like this one. Prison can be lonely, especially around these times. By organizing the Christmas tree competition, our boss gave us a story to smile about together—a way to break up the monotony and lift the spirits of a few prisoners for the holidays.

‘Christmas Is What We Make It,’ by Jonathan Kirkpatrick

Early in my sentence, more than 25 years ago, I received a very special holiday gift that has remained with me all these years, even when times are difficult.

It was the 1990s, and I was a 21-year-old arriving at Washington State Penitentiary. The facility was already old and tired. It had served as a territorial prison in the late 1800s, and it was obvious. It was dark and dirty and ominous, and I could feel its history hanging over me. Christmas was just around the corner, but you could only tell because it was cold outside. My spirits were dreary.

To make matters worse, everyone around me had terrible attitudes. Prisoners tend to get grumpy and “bah-humbuggy” this time of year, and it makes sense—it’s hard not being able to be around your family. Visits and phone calls tend to get shorter, or sometimes don’t happen at all, because the outside world is busy with their own holiday obligations. This can weigh heavily on the heart. The guards didn’t help. Some of them even seemed to take a little joy in seeing us so hurt and lonely.

As December fell upon us, heavy with snow, my sadness grew. My mom was supposed to visit, but the roads were closed because it had snowed so much. When I called home, she told me that things weren’t as bad as I thought. “Christmas is what we make it,” she said.

This is what I had expected from my mom. Blah, blah, blah. The same old cliches. But she proved me wrong.

My mom had found my three cellmates’ DOC numbers. As the month went on, she sent us one homemade Christmas decoration each day that we could use to brighten our cell, and maybe our lives. Cards came every day, all month long. My cellmates were so excited and happy. They acted like they weren’t, but you could tell their spirits had changed. Just a little more joy in their lives made all the difference.

That year, my mom changed the way I saw my circumstances, and thus my circumstances changed. Every year after that, my mother sent Christmas decorations for me and my cellmates. They don’t come anymore, since she passed away in 2019. But that gift she gave me—the gift of joy—I still carry that with me and try to share it with others whenever possible.

I can’t send decorations or buy lots of holiday cards. But I can help others change their perspective, and by doing so, maybe they can change their lives.

These moments show glimmers of generosity and warmheartedness in prison, but they can’t erase the harsh reality that many of us feel being kept from our loved ones during the holidays.

As a society, we need to work toward nourishing the bonds between prisoners and their loved ones. These relationships help reduce recidivism and increase our ability to contribute to our communities when we get out. Although Washington state has since banned the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities, we must go further to restrict this extreme form of punishment and to rein in incarceration across the board. People like Ray, whatever their age, shouldn’t have to experience a rare shred of kindness through a tiny slot on a cold steel door on Christmas Eve.

Some on the outside are quick to scoff at even the smallest gestures some prisons make to commemorate the holidays. But individuals in prison are people too, and most of us will be released into free society. Where does the lust for punishment end and the recognition of our humanity begin? Yes, most of us in prison have harmed people, and for that we should be accountable. But we are still human. The joy of the holiday spirit is a blessing meant for all of humanity, including those who are incarcerated.

One day I hope to recover the joy I once held for such special moments. For now, I will make do with the joy I get from seeing my fellow prisoners smile at this time of year.

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