Christmas in and out of prison
by Marion Van Driel
The warm hearth, blinking lights and manger scenes we normally associate with Christmas don’t resonate with everyone. One such group, often overlooked, is the prison community – incarcerated offenders and their families, those recently released into society, and those on life parole.
Christmas Day is a sad day for many in the prison system. It’s just another day, with nothing to distinguish it from all the others. Inmates miss time with family, or they have no family at all. Visits (and gifts) must be vetted well in advance.
Glen Flett spent 23 years behind bars, and is on parole for life. He is a very different person today than he was. He seeks to give back and helps other offenders do the same. Flett and his wife Sherry founded L.I.N.C. (Long-term Inmates Now in the Community), an organization with a goal to give released offenders a sense of dignity and community, a place to belong. They started Emma’s Acres, a social enterprise market garden in Mission, which brings both offenders and victims together in meaningful work, and on a journey of healing. Produce provides funds for the L.I.N.C. programs and food for locals in need.
Each December, L.I.N.C. organizes a Christmas dinner that is prepared over a three-day period by parolees and ETA (Early Temporary Absences) prisoners. The unlikely dinner is attended by a diverse mix; ex-offenders, their families, prison dignitaries, homeless people, supporters from the community and church, and victims of violence.
“You don’t have experiences like this in jail,” says Flett. “You don’t feel like you’re part of stuff. You often go to your cell and mope all day.” But the act of preparing, serving and sharing this meal offers a sense of dignity, value, and belonging to offenders. It’s an opportunity to give.
Flett, who served his sentence for murder, doesn’t skirt the responsibility of offenders for their crimes. But he also adds, “We’ve all done our terrible deeds, but everybody’s more than their worst deed.” The people who work at Emma’s Acres and who are involved in the Christmas dinner know that both change and forgiveness are possible.
M2W2 works closely with correctional facilities to hold an event at Christmas for prisoners who are incarcerated, and going nowhere for Christmas. Raymond Robin, Executive Director of the organization, explains that until a few years ago, M2W2 brought all the food for a turkey dinner into the facilities to cook with offenders. This was an especially meaningful event within the women’s facilities; a wonderful exercise for the prisoners, who enjoyed the task of preparing and sharing a beautiful Christmas dinner together. Unfortunately, regulations have changed and this is no longer possible.
Robin has great admiration for the inmates at Mountain Prison in Agassiz, who have taken on the Christmas dinner themselves, using their meager savings to buy sandwiches and various Costco goods. They invite M2W2 volunteers to share the dinner with them. Volunteers bring in an array of desserts and even though it’s not a traditional feast, together they do their best to make it an evening of celebration with games, carols and photos.
Raymond says, “I’ve seen how things are for you and me, who are in the community and with our families, [and] how things have been scaled down for prisoners. In many ways it communicates that they don’t deserve to celebrate Christmas.” He adds “connections made at Christmas really last…people are much more open to share and talk with you over a meal.”
For years, the inmates at the Aloutte Women’s facility have received Christmas bags with all kinds of goodies, put together by volunteers. This way of remembering inmates has been very successful in building relationships.
Ways to help
For many who are newly released, connections on the outside are often with those who want to gain from past addiction patterns. To help establish healthier relationships and lifestyle, Robin suggests some ways to help prisoners and their families:
• Bring food to a family with no reference to incarceration – no explanation other than, “We were thinking of you and would like you to have this.”
• Drop off gifts for children of families who struggle with finances because of the incarceration of a loved one.
• Churches/Christian individuals can call M2W2 and ask to be connected with someone who might be taken out for a Christmas meal or even just hot chocolate.
Christmas is all about family, and this time of year emphasizes loneliness for prisoners. “One thing we don’t want,” Flett emphasizes, “is for prisoners to come into society embittered.”
As image-bearers of God, they, too, need the gift of dignity. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus commanded us to care for them.