Stuffed Turkey and a Hollow Heart
Turkey or roast pork, new potatoes, fresh vegetables, followed by plum pudding with lashings of cream, with seconds for those who want them.
Anyone listening to radio or watching Christmas Day news on television will undoubtedly hear of the wonderful food prison inmates will be having for Christmas dinner, as the media makes its annual trek to the prison kitchens. Most will be left with the impression that life inside jail is pretty good, and that inmates are a lot better off than most. The most includes pensioners, single parent families, many living in bedsitters.
Such imagery is all part of the wonderful mythology that covers up the deep loneliness, sense of alienation and sadness that affects most prison inmates during the festive season.
Christmas for most in New Zealand is a time when sentimentalised sanitised fuzzies abound. It has come to principally represent the end of the working year and a beginning to holidays. It is the pivotal start of a festive season of family reunions, gift sharing, bar-be-ques, cricket on the lawn, and general good cheer among neighbours. It is a welcome and much needed emotional and practical break from the routine of the fifty other weeks of the year. A secular holiday. A good time in which relaxation and enjoyment are given focus.
For a minority it is a time of deep spiritual significance. A time of encounter. A time of reflection on the impact that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the God who-is-with-us, has on our history, our lives, ourselves. It is a time of quiet joy, of thanksgiving, of peace.
For many however, Christmas can be a time of deep pain. None more so than those who are prison inmates. Cut off from families, the majority of the hundreds of thousands who make up the prison population of western countries literally grit their teeth and pray for it to pass quickly, so the ache will go away.
It is easy to generalise about prison inmates. After all, there will be about 3500 men and women who will spend this Christmas in prison in New Zealand, one of the highest proportions per capita in the world. It is easy too for the media to concentrate on the stuffed turkey dinner a prisoner might enjoy on this day. For most, nothing replaces the sense of loss, of alienation, of deep loneliness and sadness the day brings with it.
Even if the reality of earlier Christmas experiences wasn’t up to much, the Red Baron-jingle bells hype keeps the myth going that everyone is out there having a whale of a time. The fact that thousands drink themselves blotto on the ‘outside’ every year because they are not having the jolly time they are supposed to have, doesn’t cut much ice with a prisoner. They still feel they are missing out, and they wish they weren’t.
How will Christmas be on the ‘inside’? Most inmates when approached to write down their feelings about Christmas said they would think about it, and eventually declined. However some were prepared to tell their stories.
Moana, 36, mother of four, is doing four years. She remembers Christmas on the ‘outside’ as “The day of celebrating Christ’s birthday and having all the family around for Christmas dinner and sharing gifts with friends and family. On my first Christmas in jail I felt very upset, lonely and missing my family. I really miss the kids. They’re way up north with my mother and I never see them. She can’t afford to bring them down. I miss the love of the children and not being there to help them open their presents. And I miss the Christmas spirit of the family, and not being able to go to church as a family.”
Her story is confirmed by Graeme, 46, coming up to his eighth consecutive prison Christmas. “I remember the good Christmases we used to have on the farm. Big feed, good spreads, lots of lollies, time off work, trips to town, swims in the river. In jail we do have a good feed for a change but most of the guys are homesick. They miss their families, the togethers. Most keep it all to themselves. They don’t discuss it much around here. But you know they are missing it all. They just don’t talk about it. It would make a big difference if we could have visits on Boxing Day even if we couldn’t have it at Christmas. After all, the officers are getting double time!”
Warren, a lifer, found it difficult to write how he felt. His reflections however show important insights into his feelings and the difficulties that a time like Christmas will elicit.
For me, this is my eleventh Christmas in prison without intermission. Even so, time hasn’t made it much easier to handle them, although my first was the most difficult. For me it is a lonely time. Its not just Christmas I’m referring to, but the two or three months leading up to it also. A time that really drags, and each day seems longer than the last. Yes, definitely a period I prefer out of the way and behind me.
I find that frequently over this period my mind wanders a lot, and my thoughts are many miles away with family and friends. Not that I don’t think of them throughout the year. Its just that over Christmas its far more pronounced and I really miss them.
Often memories of past Christmases creep into my mind to torment me. So its a pretty rough time for me. I think it is like that for most of the blokes too, because around this time of the year there are often more moody people about and a lot more flare-ups than normal.
I think that over the years I have sub-consciously learned to prepare myself to get through this period. I know that I do tend to create more work for myself and drive myself harder around Christmas. It is my way of killing the boredom and loneliness.
For Rangi doing his last Christmas of a four year term, it is also a difficult time. “Of all the days I’ve known in prison, I feel that Christmas Day has been the most disheartening day for me. The Christmas that I knew prior to my imprisonment was the major event of the year for uniting my family and friends together to celebrate the birth of Christ with the drinking of beer, the singing of songs, and the opening of special presents for each other. Its not that I miss the wine, song, presents or the freedom that makes me hurt inside like I have done, but because I cannot share with my loved ones the joy that Christmas brings. Especially I miss not seeing the happiness on the children’s faces as they wallow in good food and presents.”
Will any prisoners be feeling for their victims? Yes, some will. But the majority probably won’t. After all, prison is so structured that there is little room for emotions to surface. Survival means repression of feelings. The them-and-us philosophy and harshness of the retributive criminal justice system mean that, regrettably, most victims also will get scant recognition during the Christmas season. Many will experience the same sense of sadness, alienation and despondency that characterise inmates. That’s the way it is. Until we change to a restorative philosophy where healing, forgiveness and reconciliation can also occur for both victims and offenders, that is the way it will remain.
Christmas is many things for many people. That is equally true on both sides of the grill. After all, we all share imprisonment to some extent – to prejudice, fundamentalism, colour blindness, consumerism, narrow ideology, status. Our worlds though are undoubtedly broarder than those of the average prison inmate.Well may we ask the question of the prisoner “given the restrictions, is it really possible to celebrate Christmas properly inside a prison?” Well may the inmate be able to respond “Given all your freedom, do you properly celebrate Christmas on the outside?”
Rev. Jim Consedine fax 03 328 8800
Prison Chaplain, ph 03 328 8207