Christmas in the federal prison system:  Christmas is indeed an important part of prison life.
 
By:  Mark A. Varca, J.D., CIO, www.FedCURE.org
 
The distinction between a federal prison camp--like Alderson where Martha Stewart is housed--and a United States Penitentiary is like night and day.  As is the case behind the fences in the Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI's).  
 
As many of you may know, my father (Pop) and I were incarcerated together for fifteen years.  We were cell mates.  Even though we were first time non-violent offenders we were classified as high and medium security, in-custody, federal inmates (
see bios).  No low or a camp institution for us.  However, in every institution we were housed, the Christmas/New Year Holidays were an important part of prison life and were indeed celebrated, as was Ramadan, Hanukah, and American Indian holidays. 
 
The Christmas/New Year holiday season is recognized and celebrated throughout the Bureau of Prisons in over one hundred institutions of various custody levels.  The gaiety of which, however, depends on the warden at each institution and the inmates wiliness to celebrate the spirit of Christmas.  Generally, the warden appoints a Christmas/New Year Committee from the institution's administrative staff.  This Committee is responsible for developing, establishing, planning and administering the Christmas/New Year Holiday Program.  This program can vary dramatically from institution to institution, ranging any where from that as has been described at Martha Stewarts' place of confinement--FPC Alderson (Camp Cup Cake)--to a few decorations, or a Christmas Day and News Years Day dinner.  If the institution is on lock down for the holidays there may very well be nothing.   Inmates in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) or the hole, have it the worst. 
 
Depending on the cooperation of the staff and the budget, the inmates are the ones that set the holiday mood and whether or not the holiday festivities are joyful.  It is noted, however, that budget cuts have taken a toll on these holiday activities over the past several years.
 
Institution and Unit activities. 
 
Generally, behind the fence, Christmas goes like this:  Each institution distributes packs of holiday greeting cards, donated by Hallmark Cards, to the inmate population.  The warden authorizes special commissary items to be sold; and an increase of Inmate Telephone System minutes and visiting privileges.  The visiting rooms are decorated and gifts are provided for visiting children--sometimes by an inmate dressed as Santa Claus.    A Christmas package consisting of various commissary items and sundries--valued at several dollars--is distributed to each inmate the day before Christmas or on Christmas day.  Generally, the warden, his staff and the unit team participate in this distribution.   Each housing unit is allowed fifty to a hundred dollars to purchase decorations, usually from the local K-Mart store:  A Christmas tree, ornaments, lights, decorations, etc.  What's not damaged after the holidays is sometimes stored away by one or two caring inmates and staff so that these decorations can be used again the following year.  Generally there is a best decorated unit contest.  The prize varies, but commonly a pop corn machine is brought into the unit from the recreation department for a evening, perhaps with a movie and or maybe soda.
 
Food Services provides baked goods and hot chocolate--sometimes eggnog, on Christmas Eve.  And special dinners for Christmas and New Years day.  
 
Religious Services arranges for outside quests speakers and or choirs to come into the institution.  Inmates are invited to the institution's chapel area to attend these functions.   The chapel is decorated with one or more trees.  Christian services and Catholic Mass are offered.  All inmates are invited.  A Chaplin visits the inmates in the SHU.
 
The Education and Recreation departments also sponsor various holiday activities ranging from Christmas parties, sports and games with some prizes (candy, soda, etc.) and perhaps a in-house movie or two.
 
As I said, the joy of these holidays depends on the authority of the warden, the cooperation of the staff and that of the inmates.  I've been locked down during these holidays more than once because of some one's stupidly, e.g., drunk, disorderly, fighting, etc.   In that case, the whole unit or the entire institution pays the price for a few errants. 
 
I cannot tell you how many times I've had to pull some one off of some one else arguing or fighting over a nasty, disrespecting remark one made to the other about Christmas.  Pop headed up the decorating in the units for fourteen years and each year put up a beautiful tree and decorations.  Which would have to come down and stored away on January 5th.  A few inmates would pitch in.  And most appreciated and enjoyed the tree.  Once in awhile though some whacko would give Pop a hard time about Christmas; and as he got older we would have to keep a keen eye out on him whenever he'd get in a confrontation with one of the whackos---not that he could not handle himself, but because he was in his late 70's and we did not want him touched, or going to the Special Housing Unit (commonly known as the SHU or the hole) .  
 
Fortunately, all of this is the exception rather then the rule.  For the most part, these holidays make the best out of lousy situation--incarceration.   Some inmates exchange gifts--even though prison rules forbid it--but being separated from family members is by far the toughest aspect of incarceration--especially during holidays.  Pop and I were always grateful, however, that the bureau recognized and celebrated Christmas.   Our family and friends joke with us now, because they say:  "You guys never missed a year sending out Hallmark greeting cards.  Not before you went to prison or during your fifteen year prison stay.  How did you do that?"  Although we both struggled at times, we seemed to have always found the spirit of Christmas and the joy that it can bring.  It is something that is highly contagious and sometimes the most hardened of the hardened are not immune and would get caught with a dose of the joy of Christmas.  Christmas is indeed an important part of prison life.  And with each year a new would come the energy to fight on--the fight to be free! 
 
The fight goes on and we are all in the struggle together.  To all people incarcerated and to their families and friends, we wish you a Merry * Christmas and a Happy New Year.
 
Best Wishes:
 
Mark A. Varca, J.D., CIO
FedCURE
P.O. Box 15667
Plantation, Florida 33318-5667
USA
 
Web Site:  http://www.FedCURE.org    
E-mail:      
CIO@FedCURE.org
E-fax:        1.408.549.8935
 
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