Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Finding time for Christmas behind bars

Foreigners in prison miss home even more at Christmas, but a party laid on by the prison service and charity groups ease the pain


I've been saving myself for this, I haven't eaten for three days," said Jimmy as he filled his plate full of turkey, ham and pizza. Originally from Hong Kong, Jimmy is one of 133 foreign prisoners who attended a Christmas party at Taipei Prison last week.

Like Jimmy, each of the men is a foreigner serving a prison term handed down by a Taiwan court and in accordance with regulations of the prison the men are not permitted to congregate apart except this one day. "I haven't seen some of these men since last year, some I've never seen before, they must be new," Jimmy said.

Lighthouse, a volunteer Christian ministry, receives special permission to throw a Christmas party at the prison and for the last 10 years foreign inmates have gathered to sing songs, feast on traditional holiday fare and simply hang out.

"This party's concept is that it's the one day a year that they can let off steam and pretend they are not in prison," said Jon Brantingham, one of the main organizers of the Christmas event.

Lighthouse was founded 15 years ago by the Calvary Baptist Church when the pastor was asked to visit a missionary's son who had been incarcerated for a drug offence. After realizing the young man was one of several foreign inmates, the pastor appealed to his ministry for volunteers to visit them, which led to the organization of Lighthouse.

A few years after its establishment, Brantingham became director of Lighthouse and for more than 12 years he has been a familiar face at Taipei Prison.

"It started out as a visitation program where volunteers would go out to visit the prisoners. And because most of these prisoners' families can't visit them, and the embassies and cultural offices can only do so much, we end up taking on the role of their family."

Foreign representative offices are restricted in the assistance they can provide, though they do make prison visits and will help inmates to contact relatives. Representatives from both the British and Thailand trade offices in Taiwan made an appearance at this year's Christmas party.

Emmanuel Sharrer is one of a small but committed number of individuals who visit Taipei Prison on a regular basis. Originally from Germany, he has been making weekly trips for nearly four years.

Prison ministerial work is not new to him. Before coming to Taiwan, he spent 18 years in Thailand, also working with foreign prisoners. Fluent in Thai, Sharrer works mostly with the Thai inmates at both Taipei Prison and Kuanfu Prison in Hualien. This year, Sharrer was one of some 50 volunteers who dished up food, sang carols and passed out gifts.

The mad dash for seconds, however, led to chaos at the banquet table and the three-hour time restriction dampened spirits, but the occasion was still festive.

"This is my sixth party and I count the days until the next one. I enjoy it, I eat a lot and see a lot of different people who come to help," said Alan, from Singapore, as he rushed off to pose for photos with fellow inmates.

During the week inmates are separated into groups of 20 to 30 men and placed in factories to work. On the weekend they stay in rooms with up to 20 cellmates. Due to a strict daily regime the men rarely see anyone apart from those they share a room with. For several of the prisoners, the Christmas party serves as the one day a year when all of the foreign inmates get together.

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