Christmas in prison (And New Year’s too!!)

We spent both Christmas and New Year’s Days inside prison! They both fell on Tuesday this year, the day we meet with the TEDx and Spiritual Disciplines teams. Several of us stepped away from our family holiday engagements to spend our usual three hours per program. Christmas is the toughest time of year inside prison. While families come together, celebrate, share in food and drink and watch in glee as kids rip open wrapping paper from Santa’s gifts, the Donovan residents face their separation from this joy, their remorse, their abandonment…

Many residents showed up to the program long faced. One expressed what many were feeling: depressed. Knowing that he let down his family, that he destroyed the joy of Christmas for his victim’s family, and that he will never have a Christmas “on the streets” again. Some know their kids are having Christmas without a father. Others struggle remembering their last Christmas outside prison as 20 or 30+ years of incarceration separate them from those memories. They spoke of wishing to pull the covers high above their heads in the morning and let the day wash over them while they pretended to not be living it.

And then came the realization that it was Christmas Day and we had shown up. For them. Because we care about them. Because they matter. Because they are valuable in our eyes. Because our “family in blue” holds a deep place in our hearts.

Some did not really know how to take that in. That they matter enough that we choose to be with them instead of our families… Their gratitude oozed out. And their self-worth grew. One resident said:  “Even our own families don’t come to visit us on Christmas! But you do.”  Another: “When I see you show up for me in this way – drive to Donovan, go through security, get all of us out of our cells… – it makes me want to show up for you, for us and for me in this way too.”

YES! Our commitment of the residents creates deeper self-worth. And this in turn, creates a commitment on their part to their transformation, to their journey to positivity, to the team, which then expands to their families, the yard, the greater community…

Show someone he matters and watch him light up. This is the gift we receive from this time away from our families.


Some specific moments of glorious light on the team. Many of these involve race, the greatest divider in prison. Plus, like most families, holidays often come with emotions, tension and disagreement. We have not been spared; the difference is how they handle this:

  • We discussed a moment of tension that had taken place the previous week. While what had been said had been hurtful, the team came back together and recognized the difference between the hurt and the person, saw the truth in what had been expressed and found their path to move forward together. It’s amazing to watch this happen, often among themselves with little involvement from our part

  • Even though certain Core Team members and all Speakers are very new to the team, the prison rules are breaking down for them. One Hispanic man (6 weeks on the team) already feels comfortable enough to go around the entire circle of team members and bear hug every “person in blue,” giving them love and merry Christmas wishes. And offering himself to support anyone who’s struggling

  • Another African-American man again referred to a white man as his brother and means it. The magic is that this extends beyond our TEDx room. We’ve heard stories of the brotherhood between races on the yard

  • Yet another person told us the vulnerable story of losing his mother on Christmas day two years ago. He went into his parents’ room on Christmas morning signing “Frosty the Snowman” and found his mother had passed away during the night

  • Another told his mom later that day that he got a visit for Christmas!! (Let’s be clear, a visit is from a family member or personal friend only.) His mom didn’t understand: No one lives close enough to visit her son. He clarifies that this visit was us. “Very dear friends came to spend Christmas with me.”