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For relatives of the incarcerated, holidays are marked by grief and loss

Shanita Jefferson, pictured with her daughter Crisai and her mother, Angelia Jefferson.

Shanita Jefferson filled a Christmas package with 75 family photographs, some handwritten letters, and a drawing from her daughter. She sent it to her mother at MCI-Framingham Correctional Facility.

Jefferson, of Weymouth, said she hates knowing that her mother, who has been in prison for 31 years, will receive only photocopies of the letters — and pictures void of her smell and the lasting imprint of her touch.

On Jefferson’s third birthday, her mother was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. On every holiday since, Jefferson recognizes the time that has elapsed. Her “soul aches” as she hears her mother’s voice age through the phone.


The grief that Jefferson feels over the holidays is shared by thousands of families across the state with incarcerated relatives, who grapple with the acknowledgment of their loved ones’ mistakes and wrongdoings but nonetheless long to be with them.

Many families said it’s particularly hard for their children and grandchildren to understand why their family can’t be together. Jefferson has an 8-year-old daughter of her own.

“I call her to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but my mom hangs up the phone and has to continue her day in jail, while we’re out here still not even celebrating to the fullest because we’re sad,” Jefferson said in a phone interview.

In Massachusetts, where the incarceration rate is the lowest in the country, more than 8,200 people were in jail or prison as of January 2020, according to the state’s most recent report. And nearly 6,000 children are separated from a parent due to incarceration, according to a report by the Boston nonprofit Families for Justice and Healing, which advocates ending the incarceration of women and girls.

What’s more, the pandemic has forced prisons and jails to restrict visitors, making it difficult — and at times impossible — for inmates and their loved ones to see each other.


“It’s a really hard time for folks who are incarcerated and their families,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which works to protect the civil rights of prisoners. They experience a heightened level of isolation during the holidays, she said, which can break people down and “disconnect people from the support systems they need to survive.”

When Jefferson was a child, she celebrated Christmas with other children of incarcerated parents that she met through a local nonprofit. They’d get together and make their parents cards decorated with candy canes. But as she got older, the holidays became meaningless and at 19, she stopped celebrating anything.

“I try not to think about stuff like that because I know the little girl inside me has not healed,” said Jefferson, whose father was murdered when she was 4 years old. She never had access to therapy.

Now, with her daughter, Jefferson does her best to celebrate. But the pandemic has made gathering with other families in similar situations impossible and kept her and her daughter away from her mother for two years.

For families with incarcerated loved ones, phone calls have become like lifelines during the pandemic — but it can be a costly option borne by families.

According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, which favors alternatives to incarceration, the state’s Department of Correction charges 10 to 16 cents per minute for calls, plus processing fees. Families said they spend $50 to $100 per week on phone bills.


Trisha Martinez, 31, said she begins to worry if she goes a few days without hearing from her partner, who is incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. He has spent every Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day for the past 15 years in jail.

“On the one hand, I feel an oppressive loneliness and a stark emptiness from my own personal tragedy,” Martinez’s partner, Matthew DeCosta, wrote in a letter to the Globe. ”While on the other hand, I feel this inert sense of helpless fury at my inability to be there for my loved ones.”

Every year during the holiday season, Martinez said she watches with sadness as the streets light up with decorations.

“It hurts me but I am also hurting for him. I can’t imagine what it’s like in there,” Martinez said in a phone interview. “It just feels like something is missing. Whenever there’s a happy moment it’s immediately followed by sadness, like ‘Oh, I wish he were here.’”

For Denise DeMarco, whose 39-year-old son is in MCI-Concord, every moment of joy is followed by a wave of guilt.

“I feel guilty if I do celebrate — not that I feel like celebrating anything‚” DeMarco said. “It’s hard to hear everyone saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving!’ and ‘Merry Christmas!’ I’m happy for them. I really am. I don’t want anyone to have to feel what we’re feeling.’’

For as long as she can remember, DeMarco said, she spent days leading up to Thanksgiving cooking a feast with the help of her son. On Christmas, she’d invite family from out of state and friends to their joyfully decorated home. She still hung stockings on the mantle long after her children were grown.


But after her son was arrested five years ago and sentenced to life last year, the thought of even decorating the house became too painful.

After her son was arrested, DeMarco became estranged from her family. Now, observing the holidays feels “obligatory,” she said. They don’t go anywhere and they don’t have anyone over.

“A lot of times there’s just nothing to say,” she said. “I don’t buy his favorite foods at the grocery store anymore. There are certain things that I won’t even make for Christmas dinner because I know he loves them and misses them so much.”

Jefferson now channels her childhood trauma into advocating for healing and support for families impacted by incarceration through Families for Justice and Healing. A motion has been filed in the Suffolk County Superior Court to review her mother’s trial, which her lawyers say was “inaccurate and incomplete.”

“All we want for Christmas is to be with her,” Jefferson said. “We want her home. We need her home.”

Julia Carlin can be reached at