On regular weekends, the corridor that leads people to the prison’s
visiting room reeks of sorrow and grief. From the grey security
checkpoint, the stern-looking wardens, the heavy doors that slam shut
behind visitors like a metal thunderclap, the old and pale-looking
walls, the poor lighting that seems to suck the life out of everyone's
eyes to the rusty windows which block any view of the outside world, the
air around this area, musty and filled with an unpleasant stench, isn’t
a welcoming one.
But today, there’s something different in the air.
A unique feeling in the air – the sound of laughter and humour.
The prison’s visiting room is crowded. The queue to get in is so long
that people are slightly pushing and shoving. This shouldn’t be
surprising because this part of the prison is usually jam-packed on
weekends. But this time, it is different. The festive season is here and
friends and relatives that convicts haven't seen or heard from the
entire year have come to visit.
This excitement in the air has even brought a relaxed approach to
prison operations. Guards turn their heads on certain rules and
regulations. A conscious obliviousness towards stiffly enforceable rules
such as dress codes, curfew time and group gatherings.
With nobody wanting to be a victim of isolation, prisoners try to be
polite to the guards, and guards, with a little difficulty, try to
respond to the cordiality. Both prisoners and guards know it is a jolly
time and have to put on their best behaviour, regardless of the fact
that certain procedures and protocol have been ignored.
Even the kitchen staff go out of their way to prepare something
special – an approval from the Prison Service, including a
mouth-watering cup of soft drink, usually the dark, bubbling foam that
is Coca Cola, donated by corporate institutions, philanthropists and
For some of the prisoners, this relaxed atmosphere represents the
perfect time to introduce their visiting families to some of the
inmates, whom they have come to consider as family. Those who do not
have visitors for the day are usually invited to sit with those who do,
and “adopt a family” for the day.
For people considered misfits, this show of compassion is beautiful to watch.
Change in prison atmosphere.
For someone who has spent his last eight years behind bars, Yaw
Sintim looks surprisingly nervous and uncomfortable in the visiting
room. Even though he has been promised beforehand that he is going to
have a visitor, he appears worried about the possibility of his visitor
Yaw twists an object in his left palm, his eyes roving the expanse of
the entire room, his gaze straying from one point to the other.
He appears attentive, never once has his eyes stopped shifting.
A movement in Yaw’s direction catches his attention, and an air of calmness instantly fills his face.
Uptight shoulders relax into a slump.
A few minutes later, with his gift and souvenirs firmly tucked
between his legs, he narrates the atmosphere in prison during Christmas.
“In here, you can’t trust people even when they swear that they
will come and visit you. So when people get visitors, they get excited
and shout in their cells. Some of the people who visit us, we haven’t
seen in months or years so the atmosphere here is a happy one around
For inmates who don’t have people visiting them, Yaw admits it is torturing.
“Those who don’t get visitors, they will just remain silent on
their back in their cells, maybe they try to remember when they
celebrated Christmas normally. But most of them go out and play
football. They try to have fun on their own and not think too much about
what it happening back home. The more privileged ones who have been
here for long cook their own meals, usually ‘fufu’ and pepper soup.”
During this time of the year, most prisoners try hard to keep their
minds off the length of their sentence and the crime they committed, Yaw
says. But try as some of them may, dark clouds of failure, mistake,
guilt, remorse and the ousting from society - bring salty tears to their
With offenses ranging from petty theft to cold, calculated murder,
the reality is never escapable for these inmates – but what Christmas
does is offer a reprieve from a system designed to stop any delusions
and warm musings about crimes committed.
Seth Obodai, who spent three years in jail for theft, understands this feeling and he attempts to explain it.
"The atmosphere in prison is mixed. Most inmates feel the
distance from family and friends so they hide themselves from everyone.
Some of them cry because they don’t get visitors and it reminds them of
how low they have fallen. For others, like myself, we just look forward
to the next Christmas. Thinking too much only hurts you more.”
In March 2007, Kwabena Attika was arrested for armed robbery. He was
found guilty and sentenced to six years for the offence. Having spent
six yuletide seasons in jail, he knows all too well the routine of
Christmas in prison. It is unlike the routine of any other day behind
bars, the now free Kwabena says.
"Sometimes there is a special meal, sometimes nothing. It
depends. When you’re lucky, you get gifts from people who donate to the
prison and inmates."
When a bell rings, signifying meal time, he knows the menu — rice with stew and egg and as he mildly puts it, "a cup of soft drink, mostly Coca Cola."
According to him Christ-like movies are shown. Others are allowed to watch football on television, although rarely.
Samuel Annafi, incarcerated for two years for possession of illegal
drugs, doesn’t have any tender feelings about what Christmas is like
“It was not a nice experience because you know your family and
friends are getting together and celebrating and you are in prison,” he recollects.
Although he admits that there is less security and lock-up occurs a little latter than the usual time,
“It’s not a very special day in prison, but there are a few
things that are different. Our families are allowed to visit us on
Christmas Day, depending on how well we behaved, they can spend up to
two hours. The way inmates celebrate Christmas is different from section
to section. For the people who attend church, they arrange and
celebrate a special service on the day.”
Kwabena, who said he drew a picture of Jesus as his Christmas décor during his time behind bars adds,
“The priest tries to bring grace, mercy and compassion inside the prison walls,” Without it, he says there is nothing.
“During our stay in prison, most are drawn towards Jesus out of
lost hope and a sense of fear that without believing in something beyond
this life, why is it worth living year after year in here?”
“Christmas in prison, especially if you have a long sentence, is
one of the hardest times that any human being can go through. But you
have to be strong and fight your way through.” Kwabena concludes.
This period is a time of deep reflections and strong emotions.
Families mourn their relatives who were victims of murder, for their
sons and daughters who have been traumatised by rape and the actions of
some of these inmates. Families of the incarcerated mourn those absent
from society, the hard truth of living with the repercussions of their
actions. It is why the chaplain uses this period to provide counselling
and guidance for the inmates on the Christmas Day church service.
Karim Abdallah, jailed for four years after he pleaded guilty to
charges of robbery and conspiracy to commit crime, shared the regret and
pain that comes with being behind bars during the festive period.
"Christmas in prison is like being reminded of the bad choices you made to be in that situation,” he says, nodding his head to ensure that I get his point.
“Some of us are sad that we let our children down and not being
able to share moments and memories of happiness with them troubles us.”
This period is also a reminder of how far some of them have come behind bars.
“Some inmates count the years they have spent during this time in
the prison yard. We do that to cheer ourselves because no one is going
to do the time for you," Karim adds.
There is no other time of year when an inmate understands the damage
their actions have caused their family members than Christmas. If they
are lucky, they have visitors. If not, they spend the holidays alone
and make due with a phone call home where everyone exchanges wishes of a
day when they will all be together. The holidays are depressing for
many, but for others, Christmas does something to lift their spirits.
For them, it is one more year off of their sentence… and a year closer to home.[Names and identifying prison details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.]