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Remembering Christmases past from inside prison can feel like a TV fantasy
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

Christmas commercials don’t resonate with us in prison.

During December, you might frequently see someone on TV tying a red bow on a Lexus or a Mercedes. They might drive their newly gifted car through picture-perfect scenery, snow on the trees and ground. And they might return home to an excited puppy in a cute Christmas sweater frolicking through that snow. Then the whole family might settle together next to a warm fireplace.

For some, the narrative of those commercials are a reality. For others, they are a dream. For those of us in prison, new cars and fireplaces are so far-fetched that we don’t even consider them for our wish lists. Incarcerated people must find less material ways to celebrate the season.

That can start with loved ones on the outside. Often during Christmastime, we’ll hear from friends and family who have been distant throughout the year.

I estimate a 20% to 25% increase in people getting packages full of meats, chips, coffee and other treats during the holiday season. Some people receive new clothes and sneakers through our prison’s package vendors.

Holidays in prison are a time to be cleaned up in your Sunday best. Dreads are washed and saturated with oils and creams and shea butter, then massaged and twisted and sometimes locked and tucked. Others get haircuts.

Due to the cold weather, many choose to skip “yard call,” or outdoor time, and stay inside. The prison offers two new movies every week — movies that are a couple years old. Each dayroom boasts a 55-inch TV, and movies are played from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.

Dayroom tables are filled during the holidays as people play Scrabble, chess, dominoes, Uno, Monopoly and Risk.

People have decorated living areas with Christmas cards from home taped on their walls. It livens up the joint.

One guy, who was an engineer at Northrop Grumman, an aircraft company, brought holiday cheer to our prison by stringing up homemade Christmas lights, made up of lights from old TVs and hot pots. He added a small cardboard Christmas tree cutout that he colored with green markers and decorated it with bulbs made out of Doritos bag foil. He used cardboard boxes to make replicas of presents and placed them under the tree.

He also had a small “fireplace” with aluminum foil fashioned into flames. He placed an amber light in the fireplace to make the foil appear to be on fire. Near the fireplace were cotton balls and gauze made to look like snow. It was a sight to see at night when the dayroom lights were off.

On Christmas Day, people of different races and cultures gather together for holiday meals. I’ve made gumbo. Others have made tacos, tostadas, burritos, pizza and chili cheese nachos.

Old man Kevin has cooked summer sausages on a hot plate. He splits them open, fries them, toasts the bread, then adds pickles and other condiments. He has a hot sauce he makes himself (a combination of several hot sauces) and serves his version of hot-link sandwiches.

Christmas Day is a smorgasbord, where we go from table to table (no charge, of course). Some people exchange gifts and cards. Some play Christmas carols. We try our best to have a jolly time.

My prison used to have an old fellow who received his inheritance while incarcerated. He was a lifer and always said he wouldn’t live long enough to get out; so he tried to spend all of it so he could die penniless and happy. He had too much to be able to spend it all from inside prison, but he tried. I think 70% of his money went toward helping others.

On Christmas, he passed out ramen packets and jars of Folgers coffee to everyone, saying, “If you already have coffee and soups, that’s fine, but take this anyway and give it to someone who doesn’t.”

He and many others helped create a genuine feeling of brotherhood that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of daily prison life.

Indeed, I have a slight problem with the idea behind a season for giving, peace and joy.

During the fall and early winter, everyone is in a cheery mood. But by early January, the season of giving and joy has disappeared. It’s back to the hustle and bustle of normal life.

Sure, the lights and trees can’t stay up forever, but the kind gestures — that we do on the outside and the inside — shouldn’t be limited to one season.

Why not be joyous and giving all year long?

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.

Walter Hart is a writer incarcerated in California.