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It's difficult to find holiday cheer in prison
Photo by fermate on iStock

The holiday season in prison can pass as unnoticed as a Boeing 747 flying 30,000 feet overhead.

Occasionally prison staff decorate an office with a string of lights or hang a red bow on a potted plant, but there is rarely much done to overtly acknowledge the season.

One year at Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc, in California, the warden ordered staff to act “more festive” at Christmastime. Kitchen workers took white bed sheets, hung them on the massive chow hall walls with gray duct tape, then used red and green spray paint to write holiday greetings. Some volunteers seemed quite adept at creating government-sanctioned graffiti.

There is, however, one prison area where a covertly festive atmosphere thrives: the commissary or canteen, otherwise known as the prison general store. Underpaid prison workers pull out all the stops in November and December by maxing out store spending limits, overfilling laundry bags with comfort foods, sodas and specially-purchased holiday treats. 

The procession departing the commissary looks like a parade of blue-clad Santa Clauses, some followed by vulture-like “elves” hoping for a handout.

Even in this cashless society, acts of subtle generosity abound. Support workers in the laundry room and law library receive “tips” during the holidays, as do educational assistants, plumbers and yard crew laborers. Workers who provide good customer service are frequently recognized at Christmas by their peers. We mimic outsiders by giving gratuities to mailmen, sanitation workers and caregivers.

A candy bar, a couple of ramen soup packages or a few sodas are the most common commodity gifts. A universally appreciated gift is a couple of “shots” of instant coffee in an envelope; it’s a stocking stuffer everyone uses.

Postage stamps and writing materials are also passed out to known indigent inmates by cellmates and even strangers. Those who have outside friends and family help carry our despondent brothers and sisters through the holiday season. A few dollars deposited in a prison account at Christmas enables the spirit of giving to continue and perpetuates the meaning of the season.

While nicely wrapped gift packages cannot be sent into most prisons, the thoughtfulness of a holiday card is not overlooked. Such gifts are sometimes the only color you see in a prisoner’s personal area — a rainbow of hues and glitter among the gray and seafoam-green institutional walls. 

Subtle celebrations suit this typically depressing world.

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.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.