Christmas Day at Hays State Prison





In the days before Christmas, prisoners were echoing their deepest feelings.  “Please ask your parishes to pray for us.” “Christmas Day is the loneliest day of the year for a prisoner.”  “Most of us don’t get any visitors-ever.”  “You are our visitors.”


On Christmas Day, four volunteers of St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries entered the maximum security Hays State Penitentiary at Trion.  One hour had been permitted, from 1:00 to 2:00 PM, for a Christmas Day celebration with twenty-three Catholic prisoners.  Security was unusually restrictive because most of the non-essential officers and administrative staff members had been given the day off.  Prisoners were confined to their dorms.  The only meals served on Christmas day were breakfast and dinner.  Only prisoners who had been previously authorized by the Chaplain’s memo, approved by the corrections administration office, were allowed to leave their dorms and come to the chapel for the Christmas services and celebration.


The Christmas Day sermon by Saint Leo the Great, pope, Christian, Remember Your Dignity, was read, and then distributed to each prisoner in the form of a Christmas card.  One prisoner said, “Thank you.  I will be able to live off these words for several months.”


We prayed together, and then shared the Eucharist.  Seventeen prisoners received the Blessed Sacrament.  Six prisoners who are either studying through RCIA by correspondence or inquiring about the Catholic Church received individual prayers of blessing.


Then the celebration: a tiny Christmas tree was decorated with lights and tinsel, and hung with candy canes.  (Prison officials had approved one, only one, candy cane for each prisoner.  No gifts.  Christmas cards were allowed.)


The prisoners exchanged spiritual bouquets.  They sang all the Christmas carols and songs in the book.  Sacred hymns: O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World.  Songs of joy in the Christmas season: Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  The celebration ended on schedule, exactly at 2:00 PM, to the blessed words and music of Silent Night.


In a season of abundance, the stark contrast of a prisoner’s loneliness and restrictions on giving and receiving became a time to share the most important gift of Christmas: Joy in Jesus’ Birth and, with it, the Hope of Salvation.  The Star of Bethlehem shines brightly where the newborn Jesus lay, in a stable or in a maximum-security prison.


Joy to the World!