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.



"How much we’re missing because we 'screwed up'"? Yeah, raping and killing a couple of young German tourists is a MAJOR screw-up. I hope you will use the holiday season and every other day to think about why you are there.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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