By: Angela Connell
Twinkling lights, the smell of baking cookies, winter storms, and cinnamon fill the air. Feelings of joy, connection, and the warm glow that seeps into our hearts during the Holiday season are some of the many reasons folks across California have a reason to smile. For over 91,638 of California’s population; however, the holiday season is one of the most challenging times. This number reflects those who are incarcerated in our State, those who cannot go home for the holidays and are resigned to celebrating differently.
As a formerly incarcerated woman, I remember wondering what that first holiday away from home would look like inside. Would we have a special meal? Would my family be able to visit? Would we be on lockdown for fear of increased fighting? After spending 4 holiday seasons behind bars, I can tell you that each one became more special than the last. One of my close friends and co-workers, Leesa Nomura reflected upon her first experience of the holidays while she was incarcerated in California, saying, “the holidays were dreadful at first. But then, I learned from the lifers that it did not have to be. The community learned to create a beautiful experience for us no matter what”.
As a community of individuals who all, at some point, knew what it was like to share a holiday with people they loved, Leesa said that the Life Without Parole (LWOP) and Lifers imparted that reminder: it does not have to be terrible in here. “We decorated our housing units and pulled all the stops, “says Leesa, “By December 24th, our units were transformed. I remember seeing it for the first time, and it brought me to tears”.
Leesa entered the system as a married Mom of 6 beautiful children, so the holidays were especially challenging, knowing the traditions she would not be keeping, and the memories that she would not be making. “My kid’s lives were filled with the magic of Christmas [before prison]; flour footprints on the floor on Christmas Day leading to the tree because we didn’t have a chimney,” she said, remembering the joy on her children’s faces as Santa knew exactly what they wanted under the tree.
Leesa’s experience might sound like a prison miracle; however, the collaborative and special effort that the women in the California prisons make to recreate the holiday is real. According to Prison Policy Initiative, over 33,000 are serving life sentences. Fewer than 1,000 of this population are released every year, leaving folks who have spent decades behind bars having to come up with ways to reconcile the experience. Leesa and I both became close to many Lifers inside and were guided by their positive and resilient perspective: the holidays did NOT have to be the most miserable time while doing time.
In the State of California, an organization called Angel Tree, an arm of Prison Fellowship tries to bridge the gap between the incarcerated parent and their kids. Angel Tree Christmas is designed to serve children who have a parent in prison by having parents select a gift from a catalog that the Fellowship will give to the child(ren) at a big Christmas bash. Gift giving is a symbolic way to show your care, love, and connection to another person, something that folks inside try to do with one another through gifting toiletries, handmade items, commissary, or vendor box goodies; now, through the incredible support of Angel Tree Christmas, they can give gifts to their families.
As we reflect on the privilege we have on the outside, and the ability to experience freedom during this season, I asked Leesa what she felt folks in the free world could do to support. “Remember that we all need humanity this time of year. People in prison need to know they are remembered and cared for; if they know how much you care (email, card, or package), it could be the one act of kindness that changes their whole lives”.
“Also”, Leesa added, “to anyone inside, my advice is to reach beyond your grief and allow yourself to enjoy this season with your community. You will find that it is possible to have joy. It is those moments that can sustain you”.
From our organization to each of you, inside and out, we send you the best wishes this Holiday season, and a very Happy New Year!
For more information about Angel Tree Christmas, or how to connect your incarcerated loved one to Prison Fellowship’s services, please visit their website: