Don't send a Christmas card to your neighbour, send one to a prisoner

Prisoners tell of being brought back from the brink of suicide by a simple message of support

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The Independent Online

Christmas cards and I do not generally get along. I'd like to pretend I have some righteous ethical objection to the gargantuan waste of energy and wood pulp that goes into the production and distribution of hundreds of millions of prints of unfunny Santa cartoons and terrible watercolours, but the honest truth is that I'm just a miserable git. All things equal, I'd prefer not to have to start thinking about Christmas until approximately teatime on December 23rd.

At its worst, the exchange of cards is one of those traditions which has evolved entirely by accident and, I am quite convinced, pleases nobody. I am talking about pressing an envelope into the hand of a colleague or acquaintance while chirruping “Merry Christmas!” This makes no sense. It is like arriving at your desk first thing, bidding your colleagues good morning, then passing them a Post-It Note bearing the handwritten legend “good morning” so they can glue it to their monitor until it wilts and drops in their coffee.   

There is another tradition that will doubtless be observed in millions of British households this week. It is a conversation that goes something like this:

“Who the hell is this person.”

“She used to live next door to Great Aunt Liz.”

“So why are we sending her a card?”

“Because she sends one to us every year.”

I have but two words to say to such rituals. The second is 'bug' and the first is 'hum.'

My curmudgeonly facade is breached by only two considerations. The first is that the sale of greetings cards is a major earner for charities each Christmas, raising an estimated £50m in the UK  alone. It remains a disappointingly small proportion of the UK greetings card industry as a whole, but is nonetheless makes up a significant contribution to many charities' coffers.

The other factor is that not everyone is blessed with the company of friends and family over the holiday season. For too many people, the Christmas period is the season to be lonely and isolated. This applies to many people in their own homes (Great Aunt Liz's old neighbour, perhaps). For others, the isolation is more intensely enforced.

Each year, the charity Just Detention International run a campaign entitled Words for Hope. It enables the public to send brief supportive messages to victims of sexual violence in prison.  Last year more than 10,000 messages got through to men and women who have been raped and assaulted while in custody. It takes just a few seconds (and costs not a penny, unless you choose to donate) to add one's own message, and the emotional impact it can have on the recipient is profound. Prisoners tell of being brought back from the brink of suicide by a simple message of support. Juvencia, a survivor in a Colorado prison, told the charity: “Just knowing that there are people who care about how inmates are being treated makes all the difference.”

Similarly, this might be the perfect moment to join in with Amnesty International's campaign, Right For Writes. Prominent among their current extensive list of the world's prisoners of conscience is Chelsea Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for her principled disclosure of military intelligence files to Wikileaks. Amnesty invite you to write protesting her sentence to President Obama, and you can also send a card directly to Manning herself. For good measure it is her birthday on December 17th.

Closer to home, Britain's prisons are in crisis, with assaults and attacks on staff soaring amid overcrowding and savage funding cuts and a Justice Secretary who can glibly dismiss a 69 per cent rise in suicides as a “blip.” There has never been a better time to write to a prisoner. The repugnant, petty restrictions on the receipt of goods such as books and spare underwear have finally been ruled unlawful, but it remains unclear whether policies can be changed in time for Christmas. The Howard League and English PEN continue to invite us to donate a book to a prison library as an alternative in the meantime.

I appreciate that prisoners, whatever their circumstances, are not at the top of everyone's (literal) Christmas card list. Many have committed dreadful crimes and may not be considered worthy of sympathy. That does not mean they are undeserving of love and compassion. If Christmas means anything, even to a grumpy, cynical old atheist heart like mine, then surely that is it.

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