The holiday season is a time when family and friends get together to celebrate the end of the year. Those incarcerated in America’s prisons are often left out of such get-togethers, and their families may struggle to make sense of separation during the holidays. Thankfully, a number of programs exist to allow prisoners and their families to share time during the holiday season. In addition, a number of initiatives allow inmates to contribute to society, all while gaining valuable skills during their time behind bars.

Prison Toy Lift: Salvation Army Program

The Salvation Army has long worked with prison inmates and their families. During the holidays, the non-profit charity organization has implemented specialized programs and services to better serve the needs of people, particularly the families of those behind bars. In Nebraska, the Omaha chapter of the Salvation Army rolls out its annual Christmas Toy Lift.

Begun over 25 years ago, the Christmas Toy Lift allows incarcerated individuals to send cards and gifts to their children. About 600 children received cards and gifts from imprisoned parents of the Douglas County Correctional Center and the Douglas County Youth Center in the program’s first years. Today, over 1000 children are able to take part in the program. Prisoners who are unable to otherwise provide for their underage family members may participate; the Salvation Army’s staff assesses each participant’s needs. The program then distributes special gifts, including personalized cards. The Christmas Toy Lift is supported in part by donations from the Tree of Lights campaign as well as individual and corporate donors. Similar Salvation Army programs take place in communities across the United States, with the goal of bringing families together during the holidays even if a parent is incarcerated.

Angel Tree Christmas: Fellowship Behind Bars

Families across the country shoulder the burden of a family member behind bars. Children of prisoners may feel shame and loneliness, especially during the Christmas season. To help overcome those feelings and to bring families closer even when they can’t physically be together, Prison Fellowship has implemented its Angel Tree program.

The Angel Tree program reaches out to prisoners and their family members, providing copies of the Bible as well as Christmas gifts. Throughout the year, the program offers emotional and spiritual support for inmates and their families. In 2019, local churches and groups working in partnership with Angel Tree were able to distribute gifts to over 300,000 children. Corporate and individual donors were invaluable in bringing in funds to support this important fellowship program.

Building Toys Behind Prison Walls

Much attention has been given to prisoner reform in recent years. Prisoner reform is the concept by which inmates are prepared for a life of freedom by equipping them with skills, allowing them to rejoin society as productive members.

Prisoner reform and so-called prison reform go hand-in-hand. Prison reform programs attempt to reduce overcrowding in correctional facilities, often by reducing the sentences of non-violent offenders or early-release initiatives. Unfortunately, releasing inmates early without giving them valuable coping and vocational skills can be a recipe for disaster. Prisoners may not have any skills with which to secure a job outside the prison walls, and a lack of mental and physical health counseling ultimately puts a strain on communities throughout the country.

To combat these problems, an innovative program has taken shape in Polk County, Florida. The Christmas season is a time for exchanging gifts, and the legend goes that toys are made by elves in the North Pole. In Polk County, prison inmates at the Polk Correctional Institution (PCI) have taken the place of Santa’s helpers, constructing toys for the county’s Toys for Tots program. Inmate participants in the program fabricate durable toys, including train sets, cars, jewelry boxes, and puzzle games. Each November, staff members for PCI deliver hundreds of prisoner-crafted toys to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program in Polk County. Inmates are carefully screened to participate; typically, inmates in the program are within three years of completing their incarcerations. Inmates are assessed for risks, including the propensity for violent acts, as they must be trusted to operate power tools and sharp implements during toy construction.

The toy program is one of the most popular prisoner reform programs available to inmates, and it is also the most selective in terms of who gets to participate. During their time in the program, inmates learn the skills needed to become functional members of society. Materials used in the construction of toys come from donations; small businesses and individuals donate tools, lumber, and paint.

The Toys for Tots program is only one of several prisoner reform programs in Florida’s prison system, which accommodates over 96,000 inmates in 145 state correctional facilities. Polk County and other prisons in the system provide academic, vocational, substance abuse avoidance, and personal betterment classes for inmates. Each of the programs has the goal of providing inmates with the tools and coping mechanisms they need to thrive upon release.

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