Many of these inmates are fathers, mothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, with little to no contact with the children in their lives. Some of the children know where the absent family member is and some don’t, but the impact is the same – they will be absent on Christmas Day.
But what if these children could know that while their parent is absent, they have not been forgotten? This is where Prison Fellowship Australia comes in with their program Angel Tree.
Each year, thousands of Christmas gifts are purchased and distributed to children of prisoners through the program, which is coordinated at a state level by Glenise Dagwell. Last year alone, over 2200 gifts were distributed to the children of inmates in Queensland – 500 more than the year before.
“Lists of the gift requests are given to regional co-ordinators, who allocate to churches and corporations who have volunteered to be involved,” Glenise said.
Not all areas in Queensland are fortunate enough to have their own regional co-ordinator, so Glenise often steps into the role herself.
The gift lists are very confidential and only include the basics deemed necessary to purchase a present – the child’s gender, age range, and interest. It’s even more strict if the child is under protective services.
“If the child is under the protection of Child Safety, permission to give a gift is requested first and then, if granted, the gift goes straight to their Case Worker,” Glenise explained.
Once the gifts are purchased and wrapped, a trusted person delivers them to the home of the child’s carer.
Last year, a mix-up at one of the correctional facilities meant the gift request applications were received late. A prison chaplain drove over an hour to ensure all the gifts were delivered before Christmas Day.
“When he arrived at one house, the woman who answered the door started crying because her son was in prison,” Glenise said.
“The prison chaplain realised he actually knew the son, and he was able to tell the woman that he would see him next week and tell him the gifts were received.
“It’s things like this that helps the family stay together; it means the family will be reunited one day and we’ve helped, which makes it all worth it.”
It was a similar idea that was behind the creation of Angel Tree and its parent organisation Prison Fellowship.
Former chief counsel to President Richard Nixon, Chuck Colson served time for Watergate, and he spoke to the other prisoners while he was an inmate.
“He realised there was nothing to help families, both for the family member in prison and those outside,” Glenise explained.
“When he got out, he did something about it, and Prison Fellowship was born.
“Then one year a female prisoner got a gift and she didn’t understand who gave it, but through it she realised the kids of inmates were ‘invisible’ and started Angel Tree.”
It’s a story that gets played out across the country again and again. A family member goes to jail, the remaining family are ostracised, and the children don’t understand why no-one will play with them and why mum or dad are suddenly gone.
“These little ones are innocent, but there is such an impact on their lives because mum or dad aren’t around at the moment,” Glenise said.
“The gift, while it is supplied and delivered by an organisation, actually includes a note or card from the parent in jail,” Glenise said.
“Through it all, the prisoner can realise there’s more to life than what’s going on inside the jail – they have kids waiting for them to come home.
“The parent thinks twice about re-offending.”
The beauty of getting organisations to help with Angel Tree is that the care has the possibility to go far beyond a gift at Christmas.
“We want to help and make Christmas a happy time, but also give them extended support,” Glenise says.
“There are so many grandparents whose children are in jail, so they end up looking after their grandchildren.
“Often churches who meet these people through Angel Tree, help them throughout the year with the children.