Santa Was in Solitary and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

by | December 20, 2018

This is one of the first posts we ever published on Solitary Watch, and we now share it with our readers every year. Once a year—and only once—we also ask you to consider supporting the work we do: shining a light on the darkest corners of our criminal justice system and bringing a glimmer of hope and human companionship to the people who reside there. All donations are deeply valued, and until December 31st, all donations up to $1,000 will be doubled through a special matching program. Before you depart on your holiday journeys, please consider supporting Solitary Watch with a matched donation.

With thanks for your support and your loyal readership and warm wishes for the new year, Jean and Jim

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It’s Christmastime once again in Incarceration Nation. Amidst the festivities, it’s worth stopping for a moment to remember certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As nearly 2,700 Americans sit on death row, awaiting their fates, Christians 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 incarcerated, like more than 2 million people in the United States today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but 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). In his early years, 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 up 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.”

According to the account, Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and Jesus and Mary both appeared to him. “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 nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. We hope a few will heed their words (Matthew 25:34–40), and pause to give a thought and a prayer to their compatriots who are spending this Christmas behind bars.

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If you would like to consider giving the gift of human contact to someone in solitary throughout the year, please make a matched donation to Solitary Watch. Thank you.

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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