It’s difficult – but not impossible – for the festive atmosphere associated with the holiday season to penetrate the walls of America’s prisons and jails.
“Christmas and other holidays are supposed to be a time for being with family and friends, along with being a time for reflection,” says Christopher Zoukis (www.ChristopherZoukis.com), a prison-reform and inmate-education advocate who is serving time at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia.
But behind those gleaming rows of razor wire, he says, there is no family and reflecting often brings up feelings of failure. This can be doubly so for prisoners with children.
Meanwhile, family members on the outside have their own stress and depression to cope with, and may feel guilt that they aren’t doing enough for the inmate.
But be of good cheer. Zoukis says there are several ways family members can help both themselves and the family member behind bars cope, including:
• Pay a visit. This not only provides that special, personal interaction, but gives loved ones a chance to hug, hold and simply be with each other. “Telephone calls and letters can’t compare to hugging your mother or son,” Zoukis says. “Such visits can do wonders to the psyche of both the prisoner and their family members.”
• Write a letter. A family member who can’t visit can still reach out with a heartfelt letter. “A letter can mean a lot to a prisoner and they’ll most certainly re-read it over the next several months,” Zoukis says. “For the person who writes it, this can help them cope with any feelings of guilt they might have if they feel like they haven’t done enough for the person who is incarcerated.” Any photographs included with the letter likely will make it to the inmate’s locker door. If the inmate has children, they might consider writing their own letter or creating a drawing.
• Send money or a care package (when allowed). A check isn’t as meaningful as a visit, but inmates can always use extra money for purchases in the commissary or to put on their phone account. Many prison systems severely limit what they provide for free to indigent prisoners, so even $25 or $50 can make a real difference. In some prison system, family members can send care packages, either as a regular activity or sometimes just at the holidays. Since that varies, you should check first with the prisoner’s counselor, Zoukis says.
Zoukis and his family make it a point to have a Christmas phone call each year.
“It’s almost a ritual now and we’ve had a call nearly every year for the past decade,” he says. “I call, the whole family gathers around, and they pass the phone to each person.
“When I hang up, I always have an overwhelming sense of family and support. And we always talk about how many more Christmases until I’m out. Now there are only two more Christmases until I’m home and will no longer need to call from a prison phone.”
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis, author of the forthcoming Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a leading expert in the fields of correctional education and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is founder of www.PrisonEducation.com and www.ChristopherZoukis.com, and a contributing writer to The Huffington Post, the New York Daily News and Prison Legal News. He is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia.
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