Christmas in prisons
Last year, Christmas was not the same for many of us. We felt stripped of our freedom due to the pandemic. But that was just a taste of what it is like every year for many prisoners.
Stephen James, Director of Prison Ministry at Christianity Explored Ministries, spent time in prison where he became a Christian. He shared some of his experience and what his ministry looks like during the festive season.
What is normal day to day life like in prison?
My experience was a category B prison meaning you're very restricted. You’re unlocked at seven in the morning to go and get your breakfast, then locked backed up again until work. They lock you up again over lunchtime until you are unlocked to go back to work in the afternoon and then the same for dinner. You might have ‘association’ once or twice a week, where you mix with other prisoners in the evening, which would probably be an hour and then you'd be locked up again at seven pm. Life generally is very ordered and structured, you live your life for the key that is unlocking the door to your cell.
“That's when it really hits home that you haven't got your liberty.”
What is Christmas time like?
Christmas is probably the worst time to be in prison, and I think one of the reasons why is because everyone's enjoying themselves outside of prison and you're not. That's when it really hits home that you haven't got your liberty, you haven't got your freedom anymore. You just want Christmas and New Year to be over as quickly as possible.
Life, if you're in a high category prison, doesn't really change over Christmas. Actually if anything it gets worse. More staff are on leave so the prison operationally is limited. Your time out of the cell is a lot less because there aren’t as many staff members to monitor it. The only real change was that they served a Christmas lunch. Obviously, you are allowed visits on Christmas Day but it's a very busy time for families meaning a lot of prisoners don’t have any visitors.
What gospel opportunities are there in the prisons around Christmas time?
Christmas is the busiest time for chaplaincy. Most chaplains tend to have a Christmas service that is open to all of the prison, including the prison officers, which happens before Christmas Day, and they try to make it a very inclusive event. On Christmas Day as a prisoner you are able to go to chapel, but it would be only for an hour, then you are taken back to your cell and locked up for the rest of the day. But prisoners, as many people are, are often reflective during this time of year.
Prison Fellowship has an initiative called Angel Tree. It is there to help prisoner’s buy gifts for their families. Many prisoners are touched by that as they are surprised by the fact that someone else would give money so that they can give their family a present.
The last time you see a prisoner before Christmas is always a good opportunity to encourage them in the Lord, especially those who have been going through Christianity Explored, and become Christians! During a really hard time for them, you can remind them of the real meaning of Christmas, that Christ brings true freedom to those who love him, even those who are stripped of their physical liberties.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” ??2 Corinthians? ?3:17
Find out more about our prison ministry.
Read Stephen’s story.