As families throughout Gillette gather around decorated trees and fireplaces strewn with stockings, the inmates at the Campbell County Detention Center (CCDC) are celebrating their own version of Christmas.
This year, as in years’ past dating back more than two decades, the inmates competed in CCDC’s annual Christmas decorating contest. Using stacks of multi-colored construction paper, tiny pairs of kindergarten scissors with round handles, and glue sticks, the more than 140 inmates across three cell blocks vied for Christmas Eve pizza dinner.
The idea, according to Campbell County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Sgt. Rita Jordan, is to try to bring a little joy into an otherwise joyless situation.
“People don’t want to be here on the holidays,” she said. “This lets them work together and create something positive.”
On Friday morning, the small group of judges from the CCSO Volunteer Appreciation Committee convened at the detention center with notebooks in hand. Some pulled up pictures on their phones from prior years with elaborate decorations that defied the imagination, including 3-D Christmas trees covered in paper ornaments, fireplaces made out of red paper bricks with flaming fires and even a full-size, gray paper dog sleeping on a rug in front of the fire.
This year, the inmates were given a week to decorate and were eager to see the judges make their rounds. Due to a surplus of pink and purple paper, they added a second prize category this year for the best cancer awareness decorations.
The level of detail blew the judges away. Who knew anyone could do that much with construction paper and a glue stick? The creativity and work involved in some of the decorations was mind boggling, one judge said.
In one pod, the half-dozen guys had transformed their space into Santa’s workshop, complete with an enormous free-standing paper Christmas tree that included stacks of presents, stockings with their names, and an upside down Grinch hanging in the corner.
“We really like Christmas,” one man yelled from behind the door of his cell, pointing out some of the intricacies the judges may have missed like the mini tree on the table with its tiny, wrapped presents and the animal heads sticking out of the tops of stockings lining the wall, that his son had made.
“Look at the tiny paws on that cat,” he yelled. “My son is good!”
Not to be outdone, the guys in the neighboring pod had turned one wall into a movie-like scene starring the Minions. All along the wall, hundreds of Minions were at work. Some were busy stringing lights on trees while others were sailing on folded paper planes and hot balloons, or climbing ladders to stack presents. There was also a group deviously kidnapping a gagged Santa using tiny ropes to drag Saint Nick across the floor while a trio of larger Minions in CCSO-issued orange jumpsuits, looked on.
“Those uniforms look like they’ve been sewed,” one of the judges said, peering in for a look closer. “That looks like cloth.”
The level of detail on the wall blew the judges away and earned the Minion makers first place in both categories.
Though not as elaborate as the Minions, other pods had also blown up Christmas with a myriad of creatively designed flourishes. Trees and fireplaces were a common theme though some had added interesting touches that caught the judges’ eye, like a snow globe containing the detention center, elaborate cylinder candles lit on a mantle, strings of tiny colored lights, and a cabin-theme gingerbread house covered in paper snow. Several pods had also creatively created extension cords and power strips.
The judges were pretty blown away as they scribbled notes and pointed out details that others missed.
One pod had left out a life-like glass of milk and plate of cookies with a note, promising Santa that they’d be better next year. Another counted their blessings, noting in scrawled print on a stocking that “it could be worse, they could be in prison.” Someone else created a 3-D aquarium complete with fish next to a Nativity Scene perched on the mantle with a tiny, diapered Baby Jesus. In another, an ejected Santa clung with a rope to his flying sleigh above an outhouse, yelling at his reindeer, “I said take me to the Schmidt house!”
The level of cleverness and mastery – not to mention humor – earned several of the inmates free holiday pizza, and perhaps more importantly, served as a testament to the power of the holiday season to bring hope, beauty, magic and cheer, no matter where one might find themselves stuck on Christmas.