Wearing anything in Santa red will land you in solitary confinement. It’s a gang color, and a serious violation of prison rules.
Any giving or receiving of gifts among inmates risks disciplinary action. Anything in a cell not sanctioned by the prison is considered contraband.
And don’t even think of yelling “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
Despite such restrictions, people in prison, myself included, are immersed in the holiday season. The newspapers we read are thick with gifts to buy. The television we get to see is punctuated by commercials showing just how happy buying and receiving can be. Holiday music invades the radio.
And then there the fake Christmas trees. Some appear on the desks of staff. A big fake one adorns the central area of our prison, complete with symbolically empty wrapped gifts. It’s unclear whether this is an attempt to bring in some holiday spirit, or remind of us of how much we’re missing because we screwed up.
What makes the season most difficult is that most of us haven’t forgotten the meaning of Christmas, despite the loss of our freedom. In fact, for many its significance is more glaring than ever. We try not to show it, but you can see it on our faces.
During mail call, you can see how inmates look hopefully at the colorful greeting-card-sized envelopes in the pile, hoping one is meant for them. You can see, too, the crushed looks when this doesn’t happen.
This is the time of year when we miss family the most, even though we’ll never say it to one another. If absence in the free world makes the heart grow fonder, absence of family through imprisonment, especially at this time of year, tenderizes the heart to putty. It threatens to consume. And that’s just the self-pity side of the equation. Worse still is thinking about what our incarceration is doing to those we’ve left behind.
It’s not all bad. We may get to make one free phone call to our family. A local church choir may brave our place long enough to joyfully sing carols. Many of us will even watch “A Christmas Carol” or “Home Alone” as a way to stay connected with our past.
We won’t wear red or green, but we’ll find ways to celebrate in our own way, if for no other reason than to not quite feel so alone and segregated from the rest of the world.
The holiday spirit behind bars is alive. And, for some of us, perhaps it’s good to have our holiday cheer mixed with a healthy dose of why we are here, away from our loved ones. This is the season of remembrance. For many of us, it’s just the thing we need to spark our path to rehabilitation, and to a future where we can show those we care about that we truly understand the meaning of Christmas.
Oregon Death Row inmate David Simonsen is affiliated with Prison Lives, a nonprofit group that works with prison inmates and their families.