By Taylor MacPherson
Spending Christmas in a Saskatchewan jail can be a surprisingly cheerful experience, according to the director of the Prince Albert Correctional Centre.
Director Chris Lyons said the local men’s correctional centre will be home to between 425 and 450 prisoners over the holidays, many of whom are remanded and have not been convicted of a crime. Despite the institutional setting, Lyons said the prisoners will all receive gifts and dig into Christmas turkey on Dec. 25. Some inmates are given temporary absences which allow them to be with their families, he said, but the bulk of the prisoners celebrate inside the facility.
“I don’t think, really, Christmas looks any different here than it does anywhere else,” Lyons said. “Most people, including inmates and staff, are about as much in the Christmas spirit as people in the broader community.”
Lyons said there is already a festive atmosphere in the correctional centre, with Christmas trees and decorations adoring most of the jail. The staff and inmates compete for the best-decorated units and offices, he said, with prizes awarded to the winners.
On Christmas day, Lyons said the inmates are allowed to sleep in and spend much of the day in leisure. The inmate committee provides a gift pack to each inmate, he said, and community organizations such as the Salvation Army often provide additional gifts. Inmates usually spend Christmas watching movies or organizing card tournaments, he said, before sitting down to a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the traditional fixings.
Although Christmas can be a difficult time to be incarcerated, Lyons said inmates’ behaviour doesn’t change much as the holiday season comes and goes. Some inmates are spending Christmas away from their families for the first time, Lyons said, which can result in some anxiety, but it’s not enough to create major issues for staff.
Greg Fleet, inmate advocate and CEO of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, said one of the biggest issues inmates encounter over the holidays is in their communications with friends and family members. Inmates pay for their own phone use, he said, which can leave some unable to make all of the calls they would like.
“It’s also difficult for family members to perhaps send what they would like to send,” Fleet said. “Everything has to be checked for contraband.”
Visitation can also be trying over the holidays, Fleet said, as there is usually a physical barrier between the inmates and their loved ones, which makes physical contact impossible.
Despite the issues and the effects they can have on mental health, Fleet acknowledged that security concerns necessitate restrictive measures. Correctional staff work hard to help inmates cope during the holidays, he said, and try to make sure the Christmas season is as happy as possible for everyone.
“They do the best that they can,” Fleet said. “They try and make the environment as festive as they can, given the circumstances.”