Compassion as a reason for the season

Christmastime is upon us and unsurprisingly, it’s had me thinking a lot about my family and what’s most important to me at this time of year. I've shared my thoughts on it over at the Huffington Post. I consider myself to be among the luckier ones who find themselves in prison during the holidays because I have a family that loves me dearly—whose voices will comfort me tomorrow when we speak. I know that the time when I am able to spend Christmas in their presence is in the not too distant future. And I know that I will leave this place a fundamentally better man than I entered it, and my return will be welcomed with open arms by friends and family. Yes, I am one of the fortunate ones. Because I know that when I make that call to my parents, that they will be overjoyed to hear my voice; the same cannot be said for many of my fellow inmates who have been left behind by the world outside.  For those individuals for whom there will be no letters, no visits, and no calls, my heart breaks.

We often speak of the need to reach out to those individuals who may be having a difficult time during the holidays. Many who have lost loved ones find themselves isolated and lonely, and for those battling depression Christmas may bring more pain than joy. Yet few give consideration to how these same challenges may be experienced by prisoners. The distance faced by prisoners during the holidays is two-fold: physical and emotional. Most obviously, geographical proximity issues can severely limit the ability of family members to visit during the holidays, with the costs of travel and accommodation mounting rapidly. But the emotional distance many inmates face during this season is a barrier that even those with financial means cannot resolve.

We always hear about how difficult long-distance relationships are; prison magnifies these issues many times over. Most long-distance relationships at least benefit from the ability to talk to your partner frequently and have physical contact with one another at least once in a while. Yet even in those situations it can be a tremendous strain to keep things going. For most prisoners even that most basic of contact is difficult, in some cases impossible. So it’s no surprise that this kind of separation is too much to bear for many individuals; many relationships just can’t stand the test of incarceration. And I’m not speaking strictly of romantic relationships, either, but of familial ones as well. The amount of stress faced by those we leave behind is immense, and in many cases it results in irreconcilable differences that breaks families apart. In either case, this may mean that inmates lose contact with the only people who offered them hope for a future outside the prison walls—and that pain is especially acute during the holidays. Those feelings of loss can be so profound as to send them into a deep depression that lasts well beyond the holidays and has long-term effects on their health and rehabilitation efforts.

We often hear pundits speaking of the need to “remember the reason for the season,” many of whom are the same individuals who would happily see every prisoner deprived of every human right they say they hold dear,  who believe (despite never setting foot in a prison) we have it too easy, that we’re living a life of luxury when we’re given basic access to things like education and a television set, or who are the first to call for vengeance rather than compassion.

I’m not writing this out of any kind of self-pity, to represent a collective “poor us” on behalf of prisoners. Most of us are here because our own actions have landed us here, and like I said, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. But I am writing this to remind everyone out there that regardless of where we find ourselves today, each one of us was once a child at Christmas, filled with the same hopes and dreams of the future.  Each one of us longs to be home with our loved ones. Each one of us is still human. No matter how broken people may appear on the outside, within each one of us still lies that human desire for contact and to be loved. 

I too would like people to remember the reason for the season this year and the lessons of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness Christ taught, and they are to be applied to all of humanity, be they behind prison walls or walking free.