During the holiday season, people are focused on Christmas shopping and preparing meals for their families. Media can show this time of year as covered in glowing lights and happiness. However, some groups of people don’t get the holiday experience.
One group of people are prisoners living out their time in correctional facilities throughout the country. Huntsville is home to seven different prisons that contain both men and women within their walls.
Sarah Kitchen is a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice Sergeant in the Ferguson Unit. During her time with TDCJ, she worked within the kitchens and directly with prisoners.
“Working during the holidays was both very stressful and depressing,” Kitchen said.
For the case of the holiday meal, prisoners would get to enjoy some classic holiday foods on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas: ham, turkey, green beans and types of pies. If the prisoner had a specific religious meal or restrictions, the prisoner would have to write the prison clergy to explain their religious preferences.
Prison clergy put on certain religious events during the holidays like Christmas sermons for Christian prisoners and reading the Torah for Jewish prisoners. Other religious activities like midnight mass were banned due to prison guidelines.
If the holiday didn’t fall during the weekend visiting hours, families could not visit prisoners during the day. Also, every prisoner is different, with some getting a lot of mail during the holidays while others may not even get a letter.
“[Some of] the inmates would either contemplate suicide or escaping due to fact they had very limited or no family contact through visits and messages,” Kitchen said.
Prisoners spent the holidays sticking to their regular schedule of recreation times and work hours even if it is the day of Christmas. They could give each other “gifts” from commissary, but the prisoners could not call them gifts or wrap them in any way.
For the guards in the prison, the holidays can be even more of an unenjoyable experience.
“Most of the guards would stay at alert for escapes or suicides, because it was a very tense time with a chance of riot can happen at any time,” Kitchen said.