Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Carols behind Bars

While briefly in Adelaide on my way to Perth for Christmas, I rejoined my old choir to sing Christmas Carols in a high security prison. It was the second time I've carolled in prison.

Prison is an unusual place to sing songs of peace, joy and hope. Quite literally, you are singing to a captive audience. Another former prison caroller said they found this off putting. I found that those who wanted to listen came to the front and those who did not stayed in their cells. Of course, when it came to handing out a Christmas gift of home baked biscuits, almost everyone came to the front!

Some inmates were friendly; joining in the singing, thanking us for coming, blessing us. Even the wardens were mostly friendly this year, some joining in with the carols. Other inmates paced like caged animals. As a zoo member I am used to seeing this behaviour from animals. It was sad to see my own species as the one behind bars pacing back and forth, back and forth. Singing carols to a pacing and distressed face is difficult. It gives meaning to lines such as "the weary soul rejoices". I saw a lot of weariness in people's eyes.

At each place where we sang, we gave people the opportunity to choose a favourite carol. Although Jingle Bell Rock was the definite favourite, Joy to the World, Silent Night and Away in a Manger were also requested. The religious aspect of Christmas, not just the commercial, was important to people.

I wondered what memories some of these carols brought back; of childhoods both good and bad, of family who they can not be with at Christmas. Yet, I preferred to risk raising these memories to let people know that they are not forgotten at Christmas and that there is a source of peace.

A number of people said "See you next year!" In a year's time I hope to be living and working in PNG. Many of these people will still be there when it comes time to carol again next year. It is six years since I last carolled in prison. I think of all I have done in that time and am overwhelmed by the fact that some of these men would have been in the same place, doing the same thing, that whole time.

Some carols gain extra meaning when inside a high security prison, being escorted about by a warden and singing to people behind bars. It was a reminder that the Christ child was born not for the righteous, but for sinners. "Silent night...heavenly peace"... the words were a contrast to the environment, but one I pray could be true in their hearts. Most poignant  was Little Drummer Boy; "I have no gifts to bring"... although this is true of all of us, it was so obvious of the men we were singing to. Yet Jesus still smiles at them.

When I first carolled in prison, a workmate asked me the next day "What were they like? Did they all have tattoos?" To which my response was "What? Like most of your workmates?" (at least half the crew had tatttoos at the time). Yesterday I was once again reminded that the inmates are people too. People with a history. People with a family. People with an identity. People who have done wrong, but people whom God loves.

As at Christmas we declare "Joy to the world! The Lord is come!" I pray that we will remember that "the wonders of his love" truly are for one and all; including all those shunned by society, including those serving time behind bars.


  1. Dear Hanna,
    Thank you for your heart-felt comments. I was present when you sang yesterday, as I visit Yatala every Tuesday as a volunteer with Prison Fellowship, a Christian organisation committed to 'changing lives on the inside'. It was great to hear the carols echoing around 'B' division and a blessing that the prison still allows Christian groups to come in given all the 'political-correctness-phobia'. Yes, it is true, when talking with the men, they miss their families, their friends and the freedom. Our prayer is to impact them, so they don't return their again, through local churches embracing these people and making a difference by showing God's love. PF also focuses on the 'next generation', by taking the children of prisoners on youth and teen camps with Scripture Union. Giving them positive role-models and an introduction to Jesus, the ultimate life-changer.

  2. Wow! Beautifully written and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for singing carols on behalf of us all. Thanks for the lenses through which we might view Christmas anew.

  3. Hey, Hanna, happy new year!

    Thought you might be interested in this article on women translators: