Incarceration during holidays can be incredibly difficult for individuals, as it presents unique emotional challenges that are not present during other times of the year. The absence of family time and the inability to create new cherished memories can greatly impact the emotional well-being of those in prison. The stark contrast between past holiday celebrations spent with loved ones and the current reality of being incarcerated can intensify feelings of loneliness and stress, making the holiday season the most challenging period of an individual’s time in prison.
Whether you are personally facing the prospect of incarceration during an upcoming holiday season or if you are seeking ways to support a loved one who is currently incarcerated, it is crucial to have an understanding of the day-to-day practicalities as well as the profound emotional difficulties that individuals at a federal prison camp face.
How the Bureau of Prisons Handles Holidays
Despite the environment, federal prison camps do make efforts to observe holiday traditions.
The Bureau of Prisons recognizes ten federal holidays and on those days, typically issues a special holiday meal. As of 2024, those holidays include New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There is generally an effort to match the special holiday meal to each holiday. Such meals, though not comparable to home-cooked feasts, provide a semblance of festivity.
Further, institutions offer special visitation periods on holidays. The specific days and time slots for those visits vary by institution. Specific details about special holiday visits can be found on the BOP location page.
Celebrating New Year’s in Prison
There is no celebration of New Year’s in prison (even if there is sometimes booze on the inside): everybody must be in their bunks for the first overnight count at 12:00 AM so when the clock strikes midnight, there’s no revelry or celebration to be had.
Thanksgiving in Prison
Thanksgiving is recognized by the BOP with a special holiday meal which includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, carrots, and other standard Thanksgiving meal fare.
Christmas While Incarcerated
Christmas is often referred to as the most difficult holiday for the incarcerated to miss, typically because it’s a holiday that is so rooted in time with family and tradition, and the season offers a warmth that is impossible to replicate while incarcerated. As one of our contributors who served a BOP sentence from 2021- 2023 writes, “What stands out in my memory most is how long the lines were at the phones. Everybody was calling home, sometimes multiple times per day, to drop in on their family celebrations. This is probably the quietest day in the BOP as people reflect on what they’re missing out on.”
Just before Christmas, incarcerated individuals usually receive free bags of goodies that are put together by the commissary team. These goodies are meant to mimic the tradition of receiving a stocking with small gifts on Christmas.
Other Religious Holidays
Religious holidays that are not among the ten federal holidays are honored, though the form and format of those celebrations are tailored to the specific needs and sizes of those groups.
The Emotional Challenge of Being Incarcerated During the Holidays
Incarceration during the holidays brings with it unique emotional challenges that can deeply impact individuals. The absence of family time and the disconnection from cherished memories intensify the emotional strain, loneliness, and stress experienced by those behind bars.
The stark contrast between past holiday celebrations spent with family and the harsh reality of being confined within the confines of a federal prison camp only serves to magnify these emotions. The sense of longing for the warmth and joy of previous holiday gatherings can be overwhelming. The knowledge that family members are gathering and celebrating without them adds to the already heavy burden.
While incarcerated individuals do have the opportunity to connect with their families via telephone during the holidays, these conversations often fall short of providing true solace. The limited duration and lack of physical presence during these calls only serve to emphasize the physical separation from loved ones.
The emotional challenges of spending holidays in prison underscore the profound toll that incarceration takes on mental well-being. It serves as a poignant reminder of the need for robust support systems, both within and outside prison walls, to help inmates navigate and cope with the immense emotional weight that comes with these difficult times.