The holidays in general, and Christmas in particular, take on special meaning for those of us in prison for a variety of reasons. For the most part, guys are looking forward to receiving a decent mean of turkey and/or ham. Prison staff typically adopts a slightly less confrontational stance and well-meaning volunteers often come in for special events like concerts from church choirs. For some, this season will mark the one time of the year they’ll receive a visit, perhaps some mail; and for others, it’s a time that reminds them just how alone they are because these visits don’t come.
Those are some of the observable realities of Christmas in prison but equally present, though less obviously observable, is the deep spiritual reflection on the historical event Christmas calls our attention to: the birth of Jesus Christ. For the faithful and devout, discussions are taking place all over the prison about the events surrounding Joseph and Mary, which lead up to that amazing event. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a few classic Christmas songs.
I’ve experienced quite a few Christmases in prison myself: 2016 will be 25 total. But one in particular stands out. It was Christmas Day, 1997.
I had been in a prison downstate for five years and, due to some court issues, I had been brought back and remanded to the custody of the county jail close to home. Being back in my home town, I was able to get multiple visits. But it just so happened that I was on the tier with an old friend during my stay. I was sitting next to him watching the news when a story broke about a house that had caught on fire. Tragedy struck my friend’s life as he watched his wife and daughter perish in that fire. This too is a sad reality for so many of us in prison as Christmas approaches.
In this case, being that this was a few weeks before Christmas, I set out to make sure that Christmas 1997 wouldn’t be remembered only for tragedy in my friend’s life. I knew my family was coming to visit, so I told my sister to call my friend out too. Being that he’d lost his family, we decided to “adopt” him into a new one.
Christmas Day arrives and the names start getting called for visits, and while the period of mourning had passed, the pain of it all showed on his face as he’d come to grips with the idea that he would’t be receiving a visit… until.
My name was called, I waited a few seconds, and his name was called. His head shot up, eyes with with shock, jaw a little slack. I patted him on the shoulder and told him to put on his best browns (county jail uniform). We went to the visiting room together and were greeted by the warm, smiling faces of my family. I introduced him and we explained how we wanted to adopt him. His sadness was, at least for that Christmas, washed away by being shown a little something that seems to be in rare supply these days… kindness.
Now, that being said, that isn’t the reason why that particular Christmas shines in my memory. Along with my parents, siblings, girlfriend at the time, and my son; they brought my elderly grandmother to see me too! I hadn’t seen her in years due to her lack of mobility and need for a wheel chair. It wasn’t easy to get her from the family home to the county jail, a twenty-minute drive, much less downstate, a six-hour drive. I wasn’t expecting her, and yet, there she was!
I was so excited. We laughed, talked, and prayed. We all just enjoyed ourselves in a way that let us forget that we were in a jail visiting room… until the guard, hating to have to do so, called and end to the visit when the time was up.
Thirty days later I was back downstate and my friend was sent to a different prison, but my family still keeps tabs on him. The distance from home put a halt on the visits, maybe one or two a year. And my only communication with my grandmother was via telephone. As well intended as everyone was with their promises to bring her down to see me, it wasn’t to be. My grandmother died, January 3rd, 2003, at the age of 94. As it turned out, Christmas Day 1997 was my last time to ever see that oh so sweet lady.
So, in my experience, Christmas is a day that, by God’s grace, I was able to have a bit of a miracle when I consider the timing of it all. My being close to home and on the tier with my friend at a time when he needed a friend the most. And being just close enough to home to see my precious one for the last time. For me, in spite of being in prison for 19 Christmases since then, I’ve found a reason to be thankful. When the will to be kind is present, even prison bars can’t stop it from being expressed. And at the end of the day, as we remember the reason for the season, let’s do true honor to Jesus Christ, by taking a little time to be kind to one and all.
This was written by our brother, CM, who is incarcerated. This post was shared by PrisonLectionary.net, which is a virtual space devoted to biblical interpretation by artists incarcerated in the United States. Our hope is that Prison Lectionary will be a point of connection for people without personal knowledge of the crisis of incarceration in the United States. With the Bible as a shared resource, reading and viewing the creative work of prisoners can humanize the abstract issues of criminal justice and dispel harmful misconceptions about prisoners. Thus, our goal is to facilitate a dialogue that privileges the voices of prisoners. For more information, please contact Will Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org.