For Gideon and the other inmates in his prison, Santa doesn’t look like a jolly fat man riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. To those behind bars, St. Nick resembles a delivery driver sitting behind the wheel of a box truck. Inmates’ version of Santa sports work clothes and a clipboard instead of a white beard and red suit.
The prison Christmas packages delivered by Santa bring holiday cheer to inmates. The packages aren’t extravagant; they consist of snacks and drinks prisoners can’t have at other times of the year. But for inmates, the contents are rare luxuries.
The treats help inmates make it through an especially tough time of year—the holidays. Gideon says Christmas is often a somber time in prison. “It’s really bad—the first three or four you go through. It’s hard to be away from your kids and family, but that’s hard every day,” he says.
Christmas packages are ordered by inmates’ families, and inmates are allowed to choose items from a preapproved list. All items on the list must be appropriate and meet strict packaging requirements.
Christmas cheer wrapped in plastic
Instant coffee, drink mixes, honey buns, and cookies dominated Gideon’s list. The instant coffee and drink mixes provide variety, something rarely encountered with prison food. The Kool-Aid regularly served by the prison is bland; it’s made in trash can-sized batches. “They’ve started to make tea that’s pretty decent at night,” Gideon says.
The “cremey curl” honey buns are Gideon’s favorite treat—he ordered 13 in his package. He used to enjoy the packages of chocolate-covered peanuts, but he stopped ordering them because his teeth are in poor shape. “I can’t really eat them no more. The only [teeth] I’ve got left on the bottom are in the front,” he laments. Despite the condition of his teeth, Gideon still enjoys the salted cashews, which are softer and easier to chew than peanuts.
Other items in Gideon’s package included:
- Boston cream pies;
- Banana cream pies;
- Red velvet cupcakes;
- Peanut clusters;
- 10 packages of sugar-free candy;
- Lemonade hard candy; and
- 10 one-ounce packages of spicy potato chips.
Fish steaks, sardines, smoked clams, smoked oysters, and “cheese nibbles” (a type of potato chip) were a few of the attractive options that didn’t make the cut.
‘You’ve got to pace yourself’
After the prison Christmas packages are passed out, most inmates tear into them as soon as they get back to their cells. Many prisoners quickly devour their snacks since such treats are scarce behind prison walls.
Gideon takes a different approach. “You’ve got to pace yourself. I always pace myself for the week of Christmas and New Year’s,” he relays. He typically waits two weeks after New Year’s to eat the last of his snacks. “That’s stretching it,” he says.
Many inmates swap items with each other. For example, a prisoner may exchange goodies in his package for snacks from another man’s box. According to Gideon, “Most people wheel and deal with their [Christmas package], so there’s a lot of exchanges going on for a duration of about a week.”
Before 9/11, inmates’ families could pick out items from local stores to include in Christmas packages as long as the items met packaging standards. That changed with the anthrax scare of 2001. After the anthrax attacks, prisons began requiring inmates to purchase Christmas packages from approved providers.
Some families would purchase cans of Campbell’s soup, punch holes in the cans, pour out the soup, and fill the cans with whiskey. The families then sent the cans to inmates, who undoubtedly were filled with holiday cheer after drinking the contents. Although Gideon has downed his share of jailhouse booze, he never received whiskey in his Christmas package.
Christmas packages are now purchased from Union Supply Direct, which provides merchandise to inmates in federal, state, and county correctional facilities across the nation. Union Supply also sells items such as prison-approved TVs, commissary supplies, and clothing.