GILLETTE — The promise of imprisonment is four walls and a bed.
The length of stay varies. So do the other privileges afforded, such as jail jobs, visitation and recreation time.
Still, at the end of the night, it’s just a person behind the walls of a cell.
Well, inside of the cells of the Campbell County Detention Center, they are a uniform plain color. But during Christmas time, inmates are allowed to make the walls of their cell blocks look however they want.
For more than 25 years, inmates have been allowed to participate in a holiday decorating contest, where those in each of the jail’s 18 cell blocks can flex their creativity and use one cell block wall of their choosing as a Christmas canvas.
The rules are simple. Each cell block gets one communal wall to decorate. The jail supplies the materials, such as construction paper, glue and safety scissors. The subject matter can’t be vulgar or distasteful. Other than that, it’s the rare opportunity for those behind bars to have free rein.
Each year, Campbell County Sheriff’s Office employees tour the inside of the jail and judge the festive displays. Inmates in the winning cell blocks are awarded with a special meal of takeout pizza. For that prize, and more often for the sake of activity and creativity, some spend hours designing intricate displays.
“I think this definitely helps lighten the mood a little bit,” said Ashley Baumfalk, who has worked in the jail for nine years. “They do try to stay out of trouble during this time.”
One of the five winning cell blocks this year, Block C, had a fireplace display with the inmate names written onto stockings that hung from the mantle. An Elf on the Shelf sat on the chimney too, along with his Elf on the Shelf girlfriend. A black bear rug sat on the floor in front of the fire.
Nathan Schuerman, who is housed in Block C, said he is a welder and used some of his design experience to work with another inmate on crafting a 3-D snowman, stacked of three paper snow balls. Each of the snowballs were circular, of course, but he made them using triangle shapes, folded side-by-side into a stable body for the snowman.
“Maybe next year we’ll try the (hexagon),” Schuerman said, hedging that he hoped he will not be there to participate next year.
“Hopefully we get some bread sticks,” he added, looking forward to the impending pizza.
Another winning cell, Block N, is now empty, but the women who lived there before they were transferred left a memorable Christmas display on its wall.
Its “Polar Express” theme depicts a train pulling various holiday-inspired carts along the tracks and across the length of the jail wall. One train cart is presumably, and fittingly, full of Powder River Basin coal. A hand juts out from the pile of the coal, waving a naughty list with the names of the women who worked on the project.
Block R is where the inmate workers live. They have jail jobs to occupy their time, ranging from inside work in the kitchen to outside work maintaining the Sheriff’s Office grounds. Their display had one of the most creative set pieces: A lifelike Jack Skellington, from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
The cartoon character turned Christmas prop was originally holstered in a position where it appeared to be emerging from a black door in the wall, springing gifts upon those in the cell block. He since came down and sat slumped against the door, ostensibly exhausted from the nightmare after Christmas.
Juan Guajardo created the Jack Skellington homage, leaning on his experience making pinatas to replicate the body. He said he had his wife show him a picture of the character while visiting and recreated it from the mental image he formed in his mind.
“It was all of us together,” Guajardo said of the display. “I did the Jack Skellington then all of the guys got together and did the background together.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas theme was chosen and executed by everyone in the cell for its originality among the other jail displays, he said.
“You can call it the best,” he added. “We know. We know.”
Finally, in Block Q, a giant scene splashed across the cell wall like a mural, titled “Santa and the Elves vs. the Grinch 2.0.”
It was every bit as epic as the name suggests. “Elftimus Prime,” an assembly of elf warriors, formed to combat a giant Grinch monster of some kind. Other elves dropped from the sky and hurled arrows at the Grinch while he fought back. The elves, Santa and Grinch were incredibly realistic, so far as fictional characters can be.
And it was all done with paper, scissors and a rare outlet for a group of men and women waiting to get out.