December 15, 2010

A Steel and Concrete Christmas

My colleague Eileen Henderson, coordinator of MCCO's Restorative Justice programs, sent this along.

A Steel and Concrete Christmas


It was the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year bit. I’d be spending my first Christmas in prison at age seventeen. As the judge at my trial said, “Slow down, young man!”

Prison provided me with the opportunity for introspection. Looking inward I thought, If I’m going to get out of prison and stay out, I need to make some changes.

Spending Christmas with five hundred guys can be brutal. Initiating festivities through seasonal flourishes, like Christmas trees, wreaths, or songs with stirring lyrics, was next to impossible.

The cell block was two tiers high. Each of the thirty cells had a bed, toilet, sink, desk, and chair, all in moldy green or queasy yellow. Our gray shirts and sand-colored pants were an ideal contrast to the navy blue staff uniforms. Over time, this lackluster sea of mind-numbing colors produced sensory deprivation.

The prison was home to cons serving out their allotted sentences. The usual tension mellowed at Christmas as an unofficial truce was struck between cons and officers. Some inmates and officers even went so far as to break the code of “No Fraternization Between Staff and Prisoners” to shake hands and converse. On any other day of the year, this would have been considered dangerous.

God showed no intention of neglecting us in this hostile environment. It was Christmas in prison—not merry, but Christmas nonetheless. Allow me to introduce you to a few of the guys who lived on my block.

René, a muscular French Canadian, was tattooed and scarred from head to toe from prison scrapes, street fights, and involuntary arrests. Closing in on forty, he tended to leave most of the squabbles to younger cons. Once he told me, “I’m like the old baseball pitcher. I throw as hard as I ever did, but it doesn’t go as fast.” Like most old pitchers, warriors, and convicts, René recognized the fact that he was no longer at the top of his game. He found a pen with his name on it and began writing his memoirs; he wrote himself right out of prison. René discovered salvation through a ballpoint pen. He eventually published his autobiography and received the governor general’s award for best Canadian book of the year.

Chris, a fine-looking, athletic man in his twenties, was into sports and excelled at baseball. He combed his dark hair straight back. His case received national attention. At fourteen years old, he had been the youngest person in Canada to be sentenced to the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. The institution arranged to place him in a stable workshop and to be lodged in a cell on a range that housed younger, less volatile inmates.

A few of the older officers had taken Chris under their wing, probably because they saw something within him that resembled their own children. They unofficially adopted Chris. No doubt that humanitarian act saved him from various assaults or worse. Because these officers, like many other Canadians, were convinced of Chris’s innocence, they were willing to take risks on his behalf. Several years later, Chris was released, changed his name, and relocated to a new province. He was released in the middle of the night to thwart roving news reporters. He married and lives an exemplary life.

I never saw him again, but I admire him for the Christmases he survived inside. Chris used to man the prison radio booth in the evenings. I appreciated when he’d play Bob Dylan’s music; those songs kept us connected with the community to which we would one day return.

D.J. paced inside his cell. As I looked in on him that Christmas morning, he was walking in circles, stopping on occasion to gaze at his mother’s photo. She had died in prison. He spent his childhood traveling through foster homes. As a troubled teenager, D.J. often spent time in jail. When I first entered prison, he took care of me, seeing that I had tobacco and papers until my first canteen arrived.

An important resource in my inner journey was our padre, a silver-haired former paratrooper. He established a special rapport with all of us, speaking each Sunday about responsibility, reconciliation, remorse, repentance, restoration, redemption, restitution, rebirth, and resurrection; they were lofty concepts, but when the padre spoke, we understood. Some of us grabbed hold of these concepts and began integrating them into our lives. Prison was a tough testing ground for practicing these principles.

The padre organized a Christmas Eve service. He recounted the Nativity with deep emotion and solemnity, and then we went back to our lonely cells. I wrote a letter home telling my parents about “the goodie bag” the prison gave us, which included butterscotch mints and a Christmas cake.

About 9:00 PM, D.J. lifted his harmonica and began playing “Silent Night.” His music guided us to a foreign town in another time. The cell block teetered on the edge of something supreme.

Although we were in prison, Christmas and its sacredness were not. We wept alone, because that’s done in private. That evening, no one screamed out in nightmare anguish. We slept soundly. That Christmas was simple and stunning, revolutionary and reverent.


A Steel and Concrete Christmas. Reprinted by permission of Rod Carter. © 2007, 2008 Rod Carter from the book “Serving Productive Time: Stories, Poems, and Tips to Inspire Positive Change from Inmates, Prison Staff, and Volunteers” by Tom Lagana and Laura Lagana. See website:


Rod Carter was the director of the Restorative Justice Program at Queen’s Theological College. He was formerly regional chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada for five years. An ex-offender, he received a criminal pardon in 1977. He is a contributing author in “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul,” “Serving Productive Time,” and “Serving Time, Serving Others.” He died in his sleep in May 2010.


from “Serving Productive Time” (for a pdf version, see: )

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