Christmas cards from jail | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (December 22, 2022, 1:03 PM EST) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
We are probably all familiar with the lyrics of an Andy Williams song with the first line, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” With Hallmark movies on the television, Christmas music playing on the radio and our streets and houses decorated in joyful colours, it is easy to accept the notion that it is a very special time to re-engage with family and friends.

That is, unless you are in lockup. It is estimated that 70 per cent of people confined in Ontario jails are awaiting trials. They are certainly not in the stores or restaurants engaging in holiday cheer. Is this a special time for those who are serving penitentiary sentences?

When I first started my prison law practice, I will admit feelings of guilt enjoying the season while I expected those inside would be enduring hardship. I made it a point to question my inmate clients how the holiday festivities those on the outside enjoy could be ignored by prisoners. The answer was somewhat surprising. “We don’t make a big deal out of Christmas,” was the almost universal response.

Indeed, some inmates noted that there tended to be increased levels of interest on playing sports in the gym or watching sporting events on television, but that was the only noticeable difference between the holiday season and the routine of daily life. Surprisingly, few made any note of religious observances. The takeaway I received from posing the question was that inmates tried to ignore any suggestion that it is indeed a wonderful time of the year.

Nonetheless, I found it difficult to let the season pass without at least attempting to try something special. I compiled a list of all the inmates I had represented in the preceding year and sent Christmas cards to my inmate clientele. For this, I was sharply rebuffed by prison administration. I was admonished for creating undue work for Visits and Correspondence staff who were required to open and examine each card before delivery to the prisoner. In subsequent years, I found an easy solution to remedy the situation. I would address each card and affix the notice on the outside of the envelope: “Solicitor-Client Correspondence — privileged.” Such material could be given directly to the inmate without examination.

I came to realize that many inmates never receive mail. Some would answer newspaper ads just to be placed on a commercial list to receive junk mail. I soon learned that the receipt of a card was indeed special. One year, I asked for an inmate with some artistic aptitude to design a cover for my card. I received the artwork and had it reproduced in Christmas card form. It was obvious the perspective of the artwork was of someone doing time inside. The notable difference in this depiction was that the artwork portrayed someone looking out from inside a cell rather than looking in. “Because that’s the way we see the world,” the artist explained.

Many times, inmates would use their savings to send a card in return. I was always very appreciative of this gesture. I would always affix cards I received to the mantel of my fireplace at home. Many times, house guests would examine the cards and be stunned by the names of notorious convicts that had made the effort to send along Christmas wishes. The cards kept coming even after the work I did on the client’s behalf was completed. I always treasured the cards I received from Helmut Buxbaum every year until he died.

So even though the end of year holidays are meant to be kept low-key in jail, I came to realize that the season continued to have special meaning for those alone and abandoned in prison cells. For those readers who maintain religious convictions, please keep these men and women in your prayers this time of year.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books), which was published Sept. 1. Contact him at

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s firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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