Home for the Holidays: Parole Project Clients Describe Their Reason for the Season

As the holiday season approaches, many of us are preparing for festive gatherings with family and friends in homes adorned with twinkling lights, laughter, and the warmth of shared traditions. However, the holiday season often takes on a different hue for men and women in prison – one marked by solitude, reflection, and a longing for connection. Given the gift of freedom, our clients can now celebrate in ways they have not been able to do for decades. Their perspectives on the holidays inside and outside of prison shed light on the complexities of this season for those traveling a long and difficult journey of redemption.

Bill Kissinger spent 34 Christmases in prison before earning his second chance in March 2023. “I never thought I’d see freedom, especially Christmas, on the outside again,” he said. “But thanks to one random phone call from [Executive Director] Andrew Hundley, I’m now out here celebrating my first Christmas!”

Bill described Christmas in prison as “always painful,” but he was resolute to help himself and others cope by making it fun and festive. As President of the Camp F VETS club, he organized activities, meals, and “reindeer games” for members of the club and others in Angola. “We were all dealing with the same emotions,” Bill said, “but at least we had each other to lean on.”

Now 71, Bill has outlived his family and expects to spend the holidays alone. “The idea of celebrating Christmas alone has the same flavor as it did in Angola – bittersweet,” he said. However, he doesn’t anticipate it will be a completely blue Christmas as he can share this Christmas with other Parole Project clients. “Just being able to send a special card or give a gift – no matter how small – is amazing,” Bill said. “I’ve already got some small gifts for friends and can’t wait to give it to them.”

“The most exciting thing about Christmas now is the simple beauty of it all. In prison, we always had some decorations, music, and friendly greetings, but out here it’s amplified,” he remarked. “You get to feel the warmth and Christmas spirit in people’s voices.”

Bill Kissinger holds up his present at Parole Project’s 2023 client Christmas party.

Tiffany Dickerson saw 16 Christmases come and go at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women before being released in November 2023. “It’s tough being away from family,” she said, “but many of us tried to make the best of our circumstances and enjoy the holidays.”

Tiffany said the Christmas celebrations at LCIW included “homemade” meals using food purchased from the prison canteen. “It helped remind us to be thankful for the little things,” she said. “The visitations were longer, too, so it gave us some special moments.”

Now reunited with her family in Gramercy, Louisiana, Tiffany is eager for the upcoming celebrations. “Being home, cooking meals together, and spending time with my nieces and nephews fills me with so much joy.” 

Sabrina Parks opening a gift during Parole Project’s 2022 client party, less than one week after her release from prison.

After 41 prison Christmases, Sabrina Parks was given her best gift when she was released on December 15, 2022. Ten days later, she woke up to see what Santa delivered to her family for the first time in more than four decades. “I felt like a kid again,” she said.

Combined with her brief reintroduction to society, Sabrina said the Christmas rush became “a bit more overwhelming than usual,” but she embraced it. “It’s a lot to take in, but knowing I was finally with my family, after all these years, really calmed me down and gave me peace so I could savor the moment.”

Sabrina said that the holidays also bring reminders of her journey. “Inside, the holidays were tough. You miss your family and the traditions, the smells of Christmas dinner, and going to see Christmas lights,” she said. “But there’s a camaraderie that develops. We would recreate traditions in our own way. Those hodgepodge celebrations were just as meaningful because I was with my ‘extended family.’”

“To me, Christmas is about seeing the good in people no matter who they are and spreading happiness to everyone you encounter,” Sabrina said. “No one is perfect. But at Christmas, people always band together, even with strangers, to share joyful times.”

Now settled into her new life, Sabrina is anticipating her second Christmas home. “I think I’m actually going to enjoy it more because I’m not as new anymore,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt that I’m getting even better at wrapping gifts, too.

“But if I could have one more Christmas wish,” she added with a pause, “I would wish to celebrate Christmas with all those women again – together on the outside.”

Despite the disparities between celebrating inside and outside prison, a common thread runs through the narratives – gratitude for a second chance and hope for a brighter future. As our clients navigate the holiday season with a mix of nostalgia and newfound appreciation, they offer us a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.