Are There Any Happy Holidays in Prison?

About 24,000 prisoners in Massachusetts will spend the holidays behind bars. These organizations help to soften that reality.

More than 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails will spend New Year’s Eve behind bars. And Christmas. And Thanksgiving.

While crooner John Prine poignantly tells the story of being locked up at Christmas, most people probably could care less about the 24,000 prisoners in Massachusetts prisons and jails during the holidays. Such times can be particularly heartbreaking if you’re among the one in 28 of kids who has a parent in prison, nationwide. Thankfully, some organizations do care about those impacted by the prison system around the holidays and work to soften the reality for the prisoners and their families.

Angel Tree, the ministry connected to reformed criminal Chuck Colson’s Christian Prison Fellowship, is a pioneer in this area, according to David Sands at the Huffington Post. Operating in all 50 states, Angel Tree was founded by Mary Kay Beard, who was once listed as one of America’s most wanted criminals, and who, in 1982, after spending six years in an Alabama prison, wanted to make sure prisoners had Christmas gifts to give to their children—not just soap and toothbrushes.

In Massachusetts, the Newton Presbyterian Church (NPC) is one Angel Tree affiliate that facilitates gift-giving. NPC gave presents this year to 45 to 50 children, but throughout the years, hundreds and hundreds of children have received gifts. NPC’s website says that each child receives three presents, including clothing and toys. The importance is not in the gift itself but, instead, in the fact that the children can go to the visiting room of the prison, receive a gift from their parent, and unwrap it together.

Other programs turn their efforts toward serving the humanity of the men and women behind bars. The biggest concern during the holidays is that suicide as rates climb in December. That’s why many prisons host events for family and friends, such as the one two weeks ago at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass., where prisoners practiced for weeks to perform music and poetry for their loved ones.

In a similar light, Concord Prison Outreach has worked with the incarcerated for 30 years. This year, the organization gave 1,700 gift bags to men at MCI Concord and the Northeastern Correctional Center (NECC), also in Concord. Volunteers arranged caroling for and with prisoners at NECC. On their website, a thank you note from a prisoner shows the meaning of these gestures:

…as a indigent inmate here I do not have the resources to be able to provide for myself even the most basic needs for everyday living. . . So thank you for all you have done for a person you never met!”

At the Norfolk County Correctional Center in Dedham, Mass.—where stays are short compared to state prisons—what keeps many prisoners afloat during the holidays, is a plan for their future, according to a post on (Prisoner Daniel Goldsmith, on Inside Time, recommends prisoners use New Year’s to make resolutions much as the rest of us do in the free world.) For some, that means a job, a place to live, violence prevention or drug/alcohol abuse programs, and a newfound resolve. But at Norfolk County, many have the knowledge that soon, their sentences will be served, and they will be outside with their families.