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Every day is challenging in prison, but some of the toughest days are the special occasions and celebrations that make life outside so memorable.

Whether it’s Fourth of July fireworks at the beach with the kids, Thanksgiving dinner at mom’s house, or kissing my wife on New Year’s Eve after watching the ball drop in Times Square, these are precious memories with family and friends that recall happier times. They also weigh heavily on those of us inside correctional institutions during the holidays.

When I moved into a new faith-based dormitory in December, I was approached by an elderly man with one eye and a kind smile.

“Do you want to help us hang decorations for the Christmas party?” he asked.

I’d already expected that Christmas would pass me by quietly, like a drifting cloud in the blue sky.

“Maybe next time, Old School,” I responded.

Over the next few winter weeks, it became clear that I was living in a unique environment. Inmates labored like elves over handmade holiday cards for a local senior center, wrapped presents for Toys for Tots and gathered donations of hygiene products for indigent men in the dorm. They even prepared a menu for Christmas dinner: chili and cheese over ramen noodles, Fritos pretzel mix, and chocolate chip cookies. The food was donated by anyone who could afford it and all 72 men would get a share.

On Christmas day, while my family was gathered by the fireplace after a turkey dinner to unwrap Secret Santa gifts, I stood in a circle of convicted felons, singing carols and laughing before our community dinner.

We wished each other a Merry Christmas and traded stories, smiling and eating our feast while socializing. As the dorm officer did a security check, she wiped a tear from her cheek. Holiday music floated through the air and I closed my eyes, transporting myself back to my childhood home.

For one night of peaceful revelry, each man put their differences aside. No matter the color of your skin, where you grew up, or why you were in prison, we all ate in unity and cleaned up together as a team. For the first time during my incarceration, I felt a little better about not being home for the holidays. I realized that you can create a sense of family in many situations if you just try to connect with the people around you in a meaningful way.

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

Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist and award-winning writer from Philadelphia. A PJP correspondent, Ryan holds reporting fellowships from both resolve Philly and the education writers association. His work can be found at Muck Rack.