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Cards could adorn the walls of cells for years. (Image: Archi Banal)
Cards could adorn the walls of cells for years. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyNovember 30, 2023

Pastels and pencils: Inside the prisoners’ holiday card drive

Cards could adorn the walls of cells for years. (Image: Archi Banal)
Cards could adorn the walls of cells for years. (Image: Archi Banal)

For the eighth year, people in prisons will be receiving handmade holiday cards from strangers on the outside.

Next to me, Amir* has drawn a beautiful streak of green across the front of a card. “Shit”, he says. The streak was intended to be the stem of a pōhutukawa, but he hasn’t left enough space to draw the brush blossoms. He stares at the card for a while, before deciding it will be a rainbow instead. 

About 20 people are gathered around pushed-together tables at the Gribblehirst Community Hub, sharing trays of pastels, colouring in pencils and a can of hairspray (if you know you know). On pieces of notebook paper scattered around the tables are lists of first names: Patrick, Terry, Samuel. As cards are written, names are crossed off. 

Inside many of the cards will be a line like “I want you to know there are people on the outside who care about you and who are thinking of you today.” Patrick, Terry, Samuel and the others will be in prison when they receive their cards.

This workshop is one of many taking place this week around the motu. It’s the eighth year of the holiday card drive, run yearly by the Prisoner Correspondence Network (PCN) which is itself an initiative of People Against Prisons Aotearoa

Supplies provided by PCN.

Ti Lamusse, holiday card drive co-coordinator and criminology lecturer at Victoria University, says the card drive is the highlight of their year. “It is such a cup-filling experience,” they say. “I feel very, very lucky to be a part of it.”

For four years Lamusse has been at the centre of organising the drive, but they’ve been involved since its inception in 2016. They remember in the first year there were about 10 prisoners who signed up to receive cards, and each got a couple. This year, PCN is expecting to send around 2,000 cards to 350 people. “Everyone’s gonna get a whole envelope full of cards and light and joy and cheer, which is just a wonderful gift to be able to give people.”

The more the merrier, but as the cheer grows, so does the expense. As one volunteer has noted, “we get by on the smell of an oily rag”. To cover venue hire, materials, a little bit of kai, envelopes and postage, those fumes will need to be about $6,000 this year. To fundraise, PCN has made a Givealittle page, which is quickly approaching their target.

Unfortunately for multimedia artists, cards with glue will not make it to prisoners. Still, some cards are “truly incredible little bits of art”. Lamusse has a tip for those who aren’t so confident about their drawing abilities – Christmas trees are easy to draw, and your drawings don’t have to be great. “I’m not the best artist,” they laugh. “But I know regardless it’s the thought, the sentiment, the expression of solidarity and love in that – that is what matters.”

Around the tables, there are a few green triangles stacking up on the fronts of cards, and then being topped by stars and dotted with baubles. There are also Santas, reindeer and landscapes. I find it difficult to choose things to draw. There are enough Christmas trees, and I don’t want to draw something that would remind someone of the things they are without while in prison. I decide on a nature theme. First a pōhutukawa, more carefully planned than Amir’s and with a bee buzzing at the back of the card; a kawakawa leaf with its corresponding caterpillar; the fuzzy unfurling branch of a ponga tree, which is drawn in full on the back should it be too abstract; and finally, because by this point I was feeling confident in my drawing abilities, a crayfish (it seemed festive).

Person who usually makes cards via collage tries to draw.

Opposite me, Ali, who really doesn’t want to draw, is writing inside Josh’s cards, who can’t think of what to write (relatable). On my right hand side Amy has been quietly penning letters on paper already decorated with shells and swirls of dotted sand. All we know about the prisoners are their first names, and I’m amazed she’s found so much to say. Breaking the white silence of my first card feels awkward, but by my fourth I can barely fit it in and forget about worrying about being cringe. A PCN volunteer encourages us to write from ourselves, rather than generic messages. Amir’s rainbow card has sprung holiday greetings on all four corners. I think he might be avoiding writing because I’ve drawn all my cards in the time he’s done one. For the most part, everyone is quietly focused.

For people that can’t make it to in-person card making events, there is also the option to write a card through an online portal. Messages will be printed out by volunteers and slipped into the envelopes among the handmade cards.

Making the cards isn’t just about the prisoners. “For people on the outside it’s an opportunity to reflect on what it would be like to be in a cell on Christmas Day, and what it would feel like to be completely separated from family, from your ability to have a meaningful celebration of the new year, all the things that so many of us take for granted,” says Lamusse.

At 8:30pm, when the event was scheduled to end, people took a break for kai. Over the pasta salad, lentils and guacamole, the conversation turned from the funnelling of people into the prison system, to whether prisons are the nation’s biggest mental health facility, and worries of what an incoming government might mean for prisoners and vulnerable people who can so easily become them. It was raining outside, but soon we’d be going home to our loved ones, heat pumps and the churn of daily life in which we don’t often think of those behind bars. Making cards felt like a small tender gesture in the face of huge systemic problems.

PCN knows the cards are appreciated, because people have told them so. Some notes of thanks from prisoners who received cards last year have been scanned and uploaded onto their website and Instagram. “I felt valued, choice one,” wrote Troi. “Xmas can be challenging & it was this year for me. The loneliness birds were making their nests inside of me but when I received some cards with my name on it I really felt the aroha,” wrote Allan. “What you do is much appreciated by those of us who can’t be with our loved ones” – (unsigned). “This is the 1st greeting card in my last 4 years of prison time. So, I saved it as a valuable present” – (unsigned).

“Those replies every year move me,” says Lamusse, “They are so beautiful, so touching. It speaks to how much impact something as simple as writing a Christmas card can have – it can make a huge impact on someone’s life at a time when they’re feeling sometimes at their worst.”

Letters from prisoners following the 2022 holiday card drive.

Card making and writing workshops this weekend

Tāmaki Makaurau

Ellen Melville Centre: Saturday 2nd December, anytime between 10AM-4PM

New Lynn Library: Saturday 2nd December, anytime between 11AM-3PM

Ōtuatahi

University of Canterbury: Saturday 2nd December, anytime between 10AM-4PM

Kirikiriroa

Central Library: Sunday 3rd December, anytime between 11AM-3PM

Almost 100 cards were made in this Tuesday evening session.
Keep going!