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Getting a portrait taken in prison every holiday makes the season seem special.
Photos courtesy of Jeffery Shockley

Holidays inside are mostly just another day. But to resist this feeling and honor the season, there is one tradition I practice every year. 

For a long time now, beginning in May or June and going through December, I have signed up for our monthly in-house photo session sponsored by the activities department. It provides an opportunity to share something of ourselves with family and friends. 

The shoot takes place in the gymnasium, and the photos are taken by an incarcerated gym worker with a digital camera. The prints are 4-by-6 inches and easily fit inside a standard envelope. 

Prisoners can have up to three photos per session with different backdrops — a city skyline, a waterfall, a trail through the woods — at $2 a piece. You can sit in a chair or you can stand. I’ve even knelt in some photos as if praying or working out. 

Of course, there are many things you cannot do during the photo session. Among other things, prison rules prevent you from wearing clothing any other way than how “it is designed.” Tank tops also are out, as well as displaying artwork or other items. 

These days, I also order greeting cards from the commissary, the prison store where we can buy food and hygiene items. It offers a decent selection of cards created by incarcerated artists working in Pennsylvania Correctional Industries, an arm of the state department of corrections that employs prisoners to create products, including license plates and apparel, for nonprofit and governmental organizations. 

The cards range in price from $2.07 to $3.86 plus tax for a pack of six. This year for Thanksgiving I ordered four “Thank You” card packs because there were no specific Thanksgiving cards. 

Every year, as the holidays approach, I think of a theme to share, something encouraging. This year, for example, one of my cards read: “Thank you for listening and caring, for giving and sharing, and for just being you.” After getting some writings together, I placed them in the cards with a color photo and black-and-white copies. This is my little gift to everyone on my mailing list — my mom and siblings, my daughter and granddaughter, my countless friends I’ve met along this journey.

There are many people in my life who I am grateful for, and it is important that I show my appreciation. Friends and family on the outside must endure a lot to support us in prison: traveling long hours to visit, pat searches upon arrival, the inconvenience of unexpected lockdowns. It is not easy for them either — no matter how bad we inside may think it is for us.

I want to encourage others by being upbeat in spite of my situation. Sometimes it’s hard to not give up. If I can, I want to offer some inspiration — if I can be strong, they can too. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffery Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.