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Christmas inside: a lifer’s look into how the holiday behind bars has changed

Over a million people in America will celebrate Christmas inside, we hear from one man in Pennsylvania

By Karim Diggs
By Karim Diggs

Karim has been incarcerated for 45 years in Pennsylvania prisons. He is an acclaimed legal prison scholar who has helped many prisoners find freedom in case appeals. He wrote about #BLM in August, and covid in May.

As a young man entering prison in 1976, my holidays were the most miserable while in the Philadelphia County Prison. While in Holmesburg Prison, I cried at night while laying in bed feeling like I was the loneliest man on earth thinking about how much my wife, family and friends were living without me. My thoughts surrounded the pain and suffering my wife had to endure.

 

We always had joyful loving times together and our newborn son was born Dec. 17, 1975. Holidays were my time to send cards and gifts to all the family. Once arrested, I continued sending cards to everyone with a note. There are really great artists in prison, and they are hired to make special cards and music boxes with candy inside. 

 

Sending cards every holiday would keep me happy and a part of the happiness associated with thanksgiving and Christmas, would also be receiving a lot of cards and even gifts. In the 1970s and 1980s we were allowed to have our families order and send clothing and certain gifts from stores. It was good for families to maintain some form of normal contacts that maintained some form of humanity. One compelling way I was able to have some sanity were the holiday events in the prison. Groups would come and perform. Also we had in house singing groups and that was part of the system of allowing prisoners to have some sense of being part of a community. Making phone calls, writing letters and dreaming about another day all played a part in my good health and sanity.

Additionally the meals were made in traditional holiday food and well cooked. At that period, the food was not processed and artificial. The institution used to give us holiday bags of goodies and a quart of Eggnog, but times changed.

The numerous colleges and teachers from the institution would bring holiday treats to the classes and have small holiday parties, and share poems, tell stories and sing.

These small acts of kindness and community gatherings were useful in maintaining peace and hope in prisons. It was not strictly about control but mental health. Humans function better when they feel connected to the national society. Holidays connect all of us, including prisoners.

The system has changed. We know longer have community groups bringing us their talent and fellowship.

Depression is at the highest I ever seen in my decades in prison. Covid only enhanced the mental strains and illnesses associated with depression and loneliness. The prison population is getting older each day, and more men are dying, getting more sick and existing without hope. Broken dreams and a broken heart contribute to disease and early death. For me, seasonal holidays remain a part of my joy and hopes. I think of my blessings and above all the joy of communicating with audiences and people such as you all.

With Warm Holiday thoughts, 

Karim Diggs 

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