Christmas Behind Bars

How inmates at Maine State Prison celebrate the holiday season

But for the context, you might think Al Saunders looks a bit like Santa Claus, especially if it’s Christmastime and you already have St. Nick on the brain. His thinning hair is a pure white, as is his short beard, and his eyeglasses are more or less a fit. The crowning touch, though, is his white walrus mustache, which curls up at the ends like a ski jump. He could pass—but for the context.

The context is the visiting room of the Maine State Prison (MSP), the state’s maximum-security penitentiary, where the 69-year-old Saunders has resided since 1988 when he began serving a 50-year sentence. With time off for good behavior, he says, he’ll be out in three-and-a-half years. He is a New Jersey native (“I moved up here to get away from the crime,” he jokes) and a veteran; he served a tour in Vietnam, which he claims is responsible for both his bout with prostate cancer and the fact that he’s been married five times. He met his current wife after corresponding with her for six or seven years, and married her in this very room, right next to where a modest Christmas tree now stands.

Yes, Christmas is everywhere, even in the MSP, home to 900 or so of what are said to be the most dangerous people in a state of 1.3 million. Officially, that tree is the only holiday decoration in the entire prison; inmates are not allowed to put things up in their cells. They manage to find ways around that, though, as inmates will. “We usually hang our cards up,” Saunders explains. “Inside the doors, so they can’t see them. We’re not supposed to have anything on our walls. You can’t even put up a picture of your wife.” He says he gets about 30 Christmas cards every year; it’s a big door.

Like many long-timers, Saunders is inclined to wax nostalgic about the past. In the old days, he says, inmates were “treated more humanely. Officers, too. There was a more relaxed atmosphere.” Particularly at Christmastime. “We had all kinds of things going on,” he recalls.  “Every place you worked had a Christmas party—they’d put out cold cuts, bulkie rolls, chips, ice cream.” In the kitchen, he says, “the guy that ran it would put out big tubs of ice cream, butterscotch, crushed nuts—you could make your own banana splits.”

But the high point of the season, he says wistfully, was the annual Christmas giveaway, for which inmates drew numbers corresponding to gifts. “They had TVs, PlayStations, really nice clothes, down to a bag of cheese balls.” Everyone got something. Even more impressive, Saunders says, “there was no way to rig it or set it up.”

“The inmates loved it,” recalls Bob Costigan, MSP’s Administrative Coordinator, who started out in the system as a corrections officer in 1970. “But it got too expensive. We talk about bringing that back, but we haven’t done it yet.” The parties are long gone, too. And the prison no longer serves special meals for Christmas because, as Costigan explains, inmates from other religious groups—MSP recognizes more than a dozen in its ranks—started asking for special meals on their holidays. In prison, Saunders explains, “it’s all about food.”

Courtesy Maine Dept. of Corrections

The place does vary from its regular work-and-recreation routine at Christmas, hosting tournaments for inmates—pool, basketball, and, most popular of all, cribbage—with cash prizes: $15 first, $10 second, $5 third. This, Costigan explains, is largely a concession to reality, as the prison is reliably short-staffed on Christmas, and tournaments require less manpower to run than does the regular routine. But the inmates also find their own ways to mark the season.

“Inmates will make fudge for each other,” Saunders says, or give each other candy and gifts from the canteen. This violates MSP’s prohibition against what it calls “swapping and receiving”: inmates giving things—anything—to one another. “You’re not supposed to do it,” Saunders elaborates. “If you had the wrong guard, he could write you up. But most look the other way. They know we’re not trying to strong-arm or make money; we’re just helping each other.”  “At the holidays, a lot of people bend the rules,” he adds. “I bought a pair of sneakers once for someone who didn’t have them. Stuck them under his bed. He still doesn’t know who did it,” Saunders says, with a smile.

Perhaps the most common violation, he says, is when inmates let other inmates use their accounts to make phone calls, which are expensive. (Saunders says in-state calls cost 25 cents per minute, out-of-state 12 cents.) “Christmas in here is tough on some guys. They don’t have the money to make calls, and their family’s not nearby,” he explains.

Foster Bates, who is 47 and solid and could not pass for Santa Claus in any context, says the first few Christmases he spent in prison “was probably the toughest time in my life that I’ve endured—being away from family, not seeing them open their gifts—psychologically, it put me into a depressive state.” Bates, who arrived at MSP in 2002 to serve a life sentence, says the hardest thing was not being with his five kids, now aged 28 to 21, on Christmas morning. “Not being there to see their excitement--that really got to me,” he recalls, so much so that he couldn’t even bear to talk to them. “I stopped calling on Christmas,” he says. “I would call the day after Christmas.” And other than that, he kept to himself throughout the holidays. “Isolation was big for me,” he recalls. “Sitting in my cell, moping around, crying.”

Now, he says, “I haven’t learned to accept it, but to get around it.”  That may be due, at least in part, to a Christmas tradition he established in 2005. “I prepare meals, burritos, giving them out to guys who don’t have anything,” Bates explains. “It started out small, with a group of guys I hung out with. Then one time, there was a guy I didn’t know, and I had a couple left over, and I gave them to him. It was an excellent feeling,” he recalls. “Just to see the surprise and joy in his face.”

This year, he states, he’ll spend $75 of his own money (he says he earns $2.40 an hour working in the wood shop) to make 60 burritos—“rice, summer sausage, three different cheeses, pickles, ramen noodles, brown rice, cheesy rice, pizza sauce”—for other inmates “who don’t normally do anything or have anything.”  How does he get permission to do this every year? “Oh, we don’t,” he admits. “But with food, they don’t normally object.”

Depression, Bates believes, afflicts a lot of people at MSP around the holidays; “at least 85 percent,” he speculates. The burritos, he says, were and are as much for him as for them. “It got me out of my cell,” he explains. “It became therapeutic.”

Giving things to others, Saunders states, “gives us satisfaction that we wouldn’t normally get in prison … that kind of thing goes a long way in here.” What people need to know, he says, is “that we’re all just the same as the people out there. Christmas to me is not just a time—it’s a place. A place in my heart.” He became a Christian, he says, while awaiting trial. In 1987, six years after she disappeared, police unearthed the body of his third wife in his basement; she’d been blasted twice, in the neck and torso, with a shotgun. “It wasn’t really murder,” he claims. “It was suicide.” At trial he said he’d buried the body to spare their young children from learning what their mother had done. Foster Bates was convicted of the 1994 sexual assault and murder of a 22-year-old neighbor in his apartment complex; she’d been bound, gagged, violently raped and strangled while her 18-month-old baby lay in a crib a few feet away. Both were found three days later.  The baby was taken to the hospital for dehydration and severe diaper rash, the mother to the morgue. “I’ve got a real good appeal going,” he says.