I was inside for 21 years for running an LSD empire – here’s how we celebrated the special day behind bars
Of course, Christmas in prison isn’t like Christmas out there in the real world, but at the end of the day it’s still Christmas and the effort is made at some institutions to make inmates feel the holiday cheer. During my 21 years of incarceration at seven different federal facilities, I witnessed the whole spectrum in regards to what inmates and staff were willing to do during the holiday seasons.
A lot of inmates didn’t care. It was just another day on the calendar to them. They were more interested in gangs and drugs and politics and making moves. The same with staff – some correctional officers and administrative officials could care less. They were there to do a job and Christmas didn’t come into the equation. But Christmas in prison can be special if the staff and inmates cooperate to make it so.
Prison life is bleak and stark, even hardcore convicts need a little Christmas spirit. It helps to lighten the mood, let everyone relax and even put their guard down for a minute. The following is what I experienced at the various institutions I was housed at during Christmas time and how it differs from life on the outside. It was never super special, but it helped to break the routine and monotony of life inside the belly of the beast.
Getting presents in prison is frowned upon. You always hear the stories of the sexual predator putting candy on the new inmate’s bed. And if that new inmate takes the candy...well you get the picture. Anytime someone gives you something in prison it immediately makes your radar go up, like what is this dude’s angle or what is he after? That means there is no Secret Santa or gift exchange in prison. A Secret Santa present on your bunk might mean someone is trying to make a move on you in a way that you might not want. If someone did that to me I would be out on the tier trying to find out who it was so I could beat their ass.
But saying all that the staff does give out Christmas bags every year and that is a big event. It’s a big bag of candy with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hersheys chocolate bars, Honey Buns, Grandma’s cookies and much more. A nice bag of exclusive items that you don’t normally get. As soon as the staff gives out the bags and then unlock the doors it is pandemonium on the tiers as the block turns into the New York Stock Exchange and everyone is bartering their items, trading them off and selling their bags. I’ve seen prisoners trade cigarettes and drugs for Christmas bags. Everything in prison, even Christmas bags, becomes a currency.
The only time you see your relatives in prison is out on what prisoners call "the dance floor", i.e. the Visiting Room. All Bureau of Prison’s facilities have visits on Christmas and all the other holidays. But the visiting rooms have limited space and it’s not like everyone’s relatives are coming to see them. Only the lucky few in prison get visits on Christmas. For most inmates, the only times they see their relatives at Christmas is when their family members are locked up with them.
I had a few visits on Christmas though. There is usually a tree with presents under it and an inmate photographer so that you can take pictures and document your holiday visit with your family, deep in the netherworld of corruption and violence. The only thing is that if you hit the visiting room at Christmas, then you usually miss the holiday meal. But that’s normally cool because on the dance floor you can get all type of exclusive items out of the vending machines that you don’t normally have access to. So its a double bonus – you see your family and eat good, at least by prison standards.
“Prison life is bleak and stark, even hardcore convicts need a little Christmas spirit”
The Christmas meal is big. It’s one of the only times of the years where the chow hall actually makes an effort to give you decent food. There’ll be corn, stuffing, pie and that big Cornish Hen. They fill your tray up to capacity and you are allowed your feast. But the big feasting comes afterward as the kitchen workers smuggle everything that isn’t chained down back to the units. Later that night after the Christmas meal you can get pecan pies, ice cream and more cornish hens back on the unit.
In the TV rooms the prisoners go hard on sports. The NBA games dominate the television at Christmas. Prisoners watch games all day, shuffling off to the phones during commercials to call their loved ones and feel some holiday love. Guys will be betting, drinking prison-made wine that we call "hooch", eating their smuggled pecan pies and dreaming of the New Year and the time when they will get out to enjoy a Christmas in the real world. The recreation department also hosts events like bingo, card, pool, chess tournaments and craft activities. They attempt to go the extra mile for the holiday activities and provide a diversion for inmates missing their family and loved ones during Christmas.
It depends on the counsellor and case manager from each unit (and sometimes even the Warden for the whole compound) but I’ve been places where the staff will let you decorate the unit and even encourage you to. At the last prison I was at – FCC Forrest City in Arkansas – we put up lights, a cardboard Christmas tree, stockings on a cardboard fireplace and even a cardboard gingerbread house that inmates in made for us. Inmates made paper snowflakes and hung them from the ceilings, put cut out stars, crosses and Santa Claus on the walls. It was a rather festive unit. My bunkie even made a little cardboard Christmas tree that he put on his locker. He painted it and rigged up a light at the top that looked like a star that shined in our cell brightly every night. For my last Christmas in prison it wasn’t that bad.