It should surprise no one that incarcerated people struggle during the holidays. Despair and loneliness, regret and self-loathing — these emotions characterize the experience of many people inside this time of year.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Locked away from friends and family, from parents and siblings and children, incarcerated people have little option but to try and make the best of an unbearable situation.
To mark the season, Prison Journalism Project has collected a series of reflections and recollections from writers inside about the experience of holidays in prison.
— PJP Editors
Why I Don’t Call Home On the Holidays
I hate calling home on holidays. Not because I don’t miss my family, not because the phone lines are forever long, not because my family doesn’t want me to. It simply hurts to call. It hurts to hear my family together. If by chance they aren’t, it hurts even more because I long to be the one who keeps us together. I blame myself for their distance. I want to pull my family back together, so it hurts when they take for granted the blessing of simply being around each other. If only they knew how much I would cherish the bickering, my Aunt Tracy’s gravy, our homemade noodles crafted by members of four generations. I daydream about the flour, the fallen meringue, a trashed kitchen after a day well used. I daydream until it hurts. That is why I don’t call. I can’t imagine not being there.
If I pretend it is a normal day, I get through it. The chow hall attempts a better meal than usual but always fails. Sometimes they play a movie, and the lights get dimmed. Mostly I sleep on holidays. I have slept through nine years of holidays. I have refused to acknowledge I am not there.
But this is my last season away. It is harder because it is so close. I feel anxious, like a little kid on Christmas Eve. I can’t sleep. It’s so close it hurts.
—Heather C. Jarvis, Ohio
There’s No Crying in Prison
Everything about the environment in prison can make you feel deficient. The holidays are a particularly stressful time, for prisoners and their loved ones. This is the season when the constant separation and the regret become especially painful. So it’s no surprise that prisoners experience mental health problems. But in prison, it’s not OK to cry. Actually, it’s not OK to show any emotion openly, whether it be elation or despair. Such expressions of emotion are considered a weakness, something predators will prey upon. Mental health services exist, but there’s an unspoken law not to use them. One may think the administration runs the prison, but the administration is only in charge until certain players, usually gangs, decide they have had enough of their nonsense. Any mental health crisis that a prisoner endures is most likely one they will have to deal with on their own, even during the holidays.
—Timothy Monk, Arizona
Getting By During the Holidays Inside
In prison, you can find small doses of camaraderie during the holiday season. But this depends on whether you are part of the accepted class. Typically, some prisoners buy a meal to eat among themselves, and it’s only shared with those they think deserve it. If someone is considered a pariah — usually because of their crime — they won’t be included.
Many prisoners attempt to recreate traditions from their outside lives while incarcerated. But in prison it’s hard to get even the most basic supplies for holiday observances, especially in solitary confinement. Some people create their own small paper Christmas trees out of toilet paper rolls and homemade glue; some draw them on the walls of their cells. Others take the holiday cards they receive and set them up around their cell, angling them against the base of the wall. In general, drawing or taping anything on the walls is prohibited, but people do it anyway.
—Timothy Monk, Arizona
All I Have Left of the Holidays
In prison, holidays are about reflecting more than anything. We sit around and talk about the things we used to do, how they made us feel, what we enjoyed most. As a Muslim, I don’t celebrate the holidays anymore, but I remember what it was like opening presents and spending time with my mother. My fondest memory is of an old plastic Christmas tree she always set up. Every year, we screwed the long stick that looked like a mop handle into a base, then stuck the branches in the little holes. It took us hours to untangle the lights. Finally we would wrap a huge piece of glitter-covered cotton around the base — it was supposed to be snow. A memory like this doesn’t mean much to others, but it’s my memory, and it’s all I have left of the holidays. My mother is gone now. Without her to celebrate with, things are not a celebration, but merely an achievement.
—Khaȧliq Shakur, Texas
What My Kids Cherished the Most
The holidays are hard for me as I am sure they are for many. So I decided to ask my children what their favorite part of the holidays were when they were young.
My son Quon, the eldest of the three, and being the man he is, simply said, “I just enjoyed the time we spent together as a family.” My oldest daughter Joy loved the decorating — hanging up the stockings and putting ornaments on the tree. I asked her how come no one had mentioned the gingerbread houses, and she said there was too much teamwork involved! She would have preferred doing everything on her own, which made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. As for my youngest, my daughter Natesa: She, too, loved the decorations and appreciated how I ventured to the art section of Walmart and chose two of every ornament they had so that my ex-husband and I were both able to participate in the festivities.
At home, we would all gather around the table, paint them, let them dry, then add string or hooks so we could hang them on the tree. After we were done with the decorations, we would all sit and watch movies. Our favorites were “The Polar Express,” “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Scrooge.”
Natesa and I have tried to keep the movie tradition going while I’ve been inside. I include my granddaughter Jaylynn in this tradition too, telling her the names of each movie we have watched so far and the ones we still hope to see. Of all the years that I have been away, this year seems to be one of the toughest. But I hope that by sharing my family’s story, I can put a smile on the face of someone else who may be struggling.
Happy Holidays all, from mine to yours!
—Gwendolyn Burton-Green, Virginia
The Incarcerated Holiday Spirit
As an incarcerated individual, my holidays in prison are obviously nothing like they were at home. But many of us try to foster a holiday spirit in the prison environment. Some guys will bring out their 15-inch televisions and keyboards to watch football and play music in the dayroom. Others will cook microwave dinners together and crack jokes about turning Top Ramen into a meal Grandma used to make at home. It’s funny, but we only laugh to keep from crying.
—Antoine Davis, Washington state
(This is an excerpt from a longer essay which you can read here.)
A Ghost of Christmas Past
This time of year, we cry tears of longing — and we do it in the shower so no one hears. Heartfelt emails and phone calls are the only way we can attend family get-togethers. “Hey, pass me to Uncle Tone. I only talk to him once a year!” Holidays don’t exist to me anymore, and I prefer to act like it’s just any other day. I’ll have to reintegrate them when I return. Until then, they are just a dreamed-up memory, slowly losing detail as the years pass. I choose to block it out and save myself the torture of knowing I will be missed for yet another holiday. At least I exist to everyone here with me behind bricks. To those who love me at home, I’m a ghost of Christmas past.
—Christian Ross, Arizona
The Holiday Hustle
The holidays are a time of giving and receiving. I hardly ever receive money from my family, so as a young entrepreneur I have to adapt and work hard to ensure I can take care of my needs — and also have some luxuries. I draw cards, portraits and other pieces of artwork that I sell. I work in pencil on paper. Each piece can take between six to 20 hours. I usually sell a lot of cards at Christmastime. And with some of the money I make, I do things for people who have less than me, hoping to bring smiles to their faces. I give someone a warm cup of coffee, maybe a danish. Just something to let them know they are not alone in the struggle.
—Chad Weinstein, Arizona
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.