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Deck the Dorm: A Christmas Contest in a Kentucky Jail

The Louisville jail holds an annual competition to bring cheer to a tough time of year

The holidays can be a rough time of year for inmates and their families. In Louisville, Ky., jail officials have developed their own tradition to try to muster up some holiday cheer.

Every December, teams of inmates spend a week decking out their jail dorms with homemade trimmings in an annual Christmas decorating contest. Only one team can win first prize: a chicken dinner. Second place is pizza, and third is hamburgers and chips.

Working with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice, Mashable followed some of the jail’s inmates, many of them addicts, as they told the stories behind their incarceration while joining forces to try to win the competition.

“There’s so much gloom and doom in jail,” said Ken Wright, the substance abuse program coordinator for the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. “The contest brings some togetherness and some joy.”

The jail’s population of nearly 2,000 inmates consists mostly of people awaiting trial, and many are being held because they don’t have enough money to pay bail.

The annual decorating contest began more than two decades ago. Since then, the challenges faced by the inmates and jail staff have shifted, particularly in recent years as opiate abuse has grown.

On any given day, between 50 and 80 people are detoxing in the jail, mostly from heroin. Jefferson County, home to Louisville, had the most drug overdose deaths of any county in Kentucky in 2014.

After a 27-year-old woman died during heroin withdrawal in 2012, the jail overhauled its practices for dealing with the increasing number of people coming to the jail with opiate addiction.

Inmates used to detox in general population, but now they are placed in cells with participants in the jail’s recovery program. These inmates serve as extra eyes and ears, and with oversight from medical staff, they ensure the new arrivals stay hydrated. They help talk them through the detox process. There is room in the program dorms for 90 men and women, and dozens are on a waiting list for a spot.

Jail officials hope to expand drug treatment efforts so more inmates can participate.

The detox program, just like the holiday decorating contest, teaches people at the jail to work together, Wright said. “It brings out a lot of camaraderie. To win, you have to work together. And it’s the same with addiction. You can’t recover by yourself.”