What it's really like to celebrate Christmas in prison

Christmas is a time of joy and good will. The holiday, not only for Christians anymore, is celebrated around the world. The feast has several religious roots, but many non-religious people still practice the tradition. Lighting the house with festive bulbs and trying your best to turn a drab front yard into a winter wonderland isn't just fun, it's often a legitimate competition. Holiday-themed songs drive (some of) us crazy everywhere we go, from the grocery store aisles to the car radio. Red and green permeate merchandise and storefront décor, while jolly, tubby men in red costumes ring bells on the street. Kids around the world leave out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve in hopes of luring the mythical Saint Nick into their benevolent traps. All in all, Christmas and the holiday season can be the most pleasant time of the year.

The season typically culminates with gatherings of friends and family for a Christmas Day feast after the suspense of taunting packages beneath the traditional tree has finally been alleviated. But what is Christmas like for those who can't participate — for those people, perhaps, locked inside correctional institutions for the mistakes they made in their lives? This is what it's really like to celebrate Christmas in prison.

Sometimes not as dreary as you think

You might expect Christmas to be like any other day within the penitentiary. Folks sitting within the confines of their concrete cells, emotionally and even physically alone, driven down by the punishments of the courts, the weight of their misery made manifest with the reminders of seasonal tidings on the other side of the chain link fence. But Christmas in prison isn't always this way.

The dreary days may comprise the majority of the year, but for some inmates, the Christmas season is a time to look forward to. It won't be anything like the holidays on the outside, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a torturous affair. Within the walls of some prisons, as a former 20-year inmate writes for Dazed, the prison staff will hand out bags of goodies (cookies, candy, and such) to all of the inmates, which is about the only gifts one receives from the inside. The former inmate explains that gifts from other inmates usually mean a sexual predator is trying to make a move. The Christmas goodies turn the cell blocks into markets as prisoners trade, buy, and sell. To many inmates, these prison bags might as well have fallen off the back of an armored truck.

Again depending on the specific institution, inmates will make paper decorations and put up cardboard Christmas trees. Some even string lights for the holidays, while others, like the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, put on Christmas pageants or have choirs.

Christmas is for family

The decorations and festivities that some prisons have during the Christmas season might help alleviate tensions and give inmates a chance to unwind for once, but that's not the biggest draw of the holidays. After all, Christmas usually means a gathering of loved ones.

The unfortunate truth for many inmates is that their family won't be visiting them on the holidays. As the Halifax Examiner of Canada points out, there is only so much space in the visiting room and only so much time. Over the years, the stories of waiting in long lines, only to be turned away when visiting hours were up, has prevented many from even trying to see their incarcerated loved ones. Between travel and holiday responsibilities to other people outside prison, many prisoners are forgotten.

That said, some prisons have a Christmas family day. Such is the case with the Logan Correctional Center, a women's prison in Illinois. According to The Marshall Project, Logan now buses in children and other family members to spend some time with their incarcerated mothers. The families gather in the gymnasium, where they share a meal together and play games. For the inmates at Logan, it's a real holiday.

It really depends on the prison

There isn't much about Christmas in a U.S. prison that's regulated. Technically, there's a menu that dictates the Christmas meal within all federal prisons, and one inmate who spoke with Vice says this meal is often a rushed and unpleasant affair directed by annoyed staff who probably want to be somewhere else for the holidays. But that's not the case in all prisons.

The inmate describes another prison where the food service department goes above and beyond the national menu, serving Cornish hen and a whole platter of goodies, complete with boxes of Christmas cookies and bottled eggnog. A former prisoner described a similar scene for Dazed, saying they could get pie and other treats later into the night.

Some prisons allow for festivities, while others treat it like any other day in the joint. Some inmates celebrate with their peers, while the rest go on with business as usual, selling illicit drugs or "making moves," as the inmate who spoke with Vice describes it. Regardless of how the day goes, the same feelings of solitude, punishment, and negative self-worth return when the festivities are over. And, as an inmate explained to the Halifax Examiner, many inmates don't receive so much as a Christmas card.