Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

by | December 24, 2012

star-of-bethlehem1[1]_jpg2This post has become a Christmas tradition at Solitary Watch. To all our readers, warm wishes for the holidays.

As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.

Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like one in every 100 Americans today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but in part by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.

Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.

Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.

It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”

Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.

Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.

Here in the United States two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Alan CYA # 65085

    I removed the Harpers link to Bunker’s 1972 article because it was not mine to share.

    You can go to and search for it just like the other two I mentioned.

  • Alan CYA # 65085

    For most of us the holiday season is filled with good memories of cheerfully bright decorations at holiday parties with ample supplies of sinfully good food and drink. It is a time that we all gather together to share our good fortune with those that we care most about. And for the luckiest among us, our homes are as full as the cornucopias that sit at the center of our dining room tables.

    But as we gather near the Christmas tree to sing “Silent Night,” take a moment to remember those in isolation. Then throw one back for them and have a


  • Alan CYA # 65085

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    As an inmate in the 1960’s I can tell you that by the time the Summer of Love arrived in 1967 every peaceful flower child that was incarcerated had a cross to bear. As he walked bound in his chains through the cruel gantlet which is prison, sadistic guards on one side, and leering sexual predators on the other, he may have paused with a tear in his eye to look beyond the ominous watchtowers towards the sky to ask “Why has thou forsaken me?”

    To fully appreciate what such a non-violent offender encountered and to gain insight into the prison politics of the era which lead to the current crisis read Edward Bunker’s February 1972 article in Harper’s Magazine, “War Behind Walls.”

    Or this even shorter paper titled “In Texas Prisons, Violence and Racism Reign” by Jorge Antonio Renaud published: Nov. 22, 2010.

    Justice William Wayne Justice of Texas also wrote an article published in the Texas Observer in 1999 titled “Cruel and Unusual Still” here is an excerpt:

    “Correctional officers continue to rely on the physical control of excessive force to enforce order. Those inmates locked away in administrative segregation, especially those with mental illnesses, are subjected to extreme deprivations and daily psychological harm. Such practices and conditions cannot stand in our society, under our Constitution.”

    And indeed it still is an unusually cruel system.

    Such cruel conditions results in tens of thousands of men leaving this system with a predator mentality buried so deep that it might never be eradicated.

    Let’s hope that in 2013 our society finally realizes the harm that we’ve done and are still doing. But given the history you point out in this article I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year ! may the coming year bring us good change and blessed revelations..

  • Otto Ball

    I write to many sitting in prison.
    My wife and I sent out a Christmas card to all on our list
    over 800 cards sent out
    One person can make a difference
    Gladly pass on to you many addresses
    Visit my face book got plenty of Christmas cards
    sent to posted the card and the inmates address

  • Do justice, but LOVE MERCY. Amnesty for all non violent drug offenders. NOW. Merry Christmas.

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