Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Christmas Cards

This piece of art and other work by incarcerated people are for sale online at Safe Streets Arts
One my favorite prison advocacy organizations is the Safe Streets Arts Foundation in Washington, DC.  This organization promotes art and music in correctional facilities by selling the work of people who are incarcerated through their website and art galleries in the community.  A great gift for the "hard to find" person on your list - the pieces sell for $60 each, including frame and shipping.

Every year at Christmas time, the organization requests assistance in sending Christmas cards to all of the incarcerated artists who participate in their program.  I agreed to do it last year and the organization's director, Dennis, quickly emailed me a list of 20 names and addresses.  While everyone else on my list got a photo card of my two smiling children, for these folks I bought two sets of cards at the Yale Art Gallery bookstore which featured pieces from the museum's permanent collection. Figured they'd appreciate an artistic image.  Mmmm huh.  Figured it wasn't a good idea to send them a picture of my kids. Because the kids would have been irrelevant and show-y off-y.  Because, like it or not, I am just a little bit scared of that locked-up person.

I sat with the cards for while.  What do you write in a Christmas card to an incarcerated person that you don't know?
I hope this card finds you well.
May you find peace in the New Year.
The weather in New Haven is cold but clear.
Season's Greetings.

For me, the most remarkable part of the process was addressing the envelopes. Writing out the person's name, her inmate number, the name of the correctional facility.  In West Virginia. In Florida.  In California. It all comes back to the unanswerable question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?" The process was an exercise in seeing. I see you.  I know where you are. You have not been forgotten.  Putting the card into the envelope, I thought about the prisoner opening that same envelope, pulling the card out, turning it over, reading it, touching it.  Does she see me?

Connecting with a prisoner, even in this most distant way, you can't help but wonder who the person is and what she did to get locked up.  Why does it matter? Would the greeting be different?  What if the person is serving 24 months for a drug crime she didn't commit?  Incarcerated for her neighbor's offense, a case of mistaken identity.  What if she has 30 years for Manslaughter 1?  Her prints all over the gun.  His DNA under her nails.  In the spirit of the holidays, I wonder, would Jesus care?  What would he write?

Matthew 25:35
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

If you want to help out with Christmas cards this year, contact Dennis at: