Beyond the Badge, Community Involvement

Santa is lifetime in making for Scott Cupp

Prison sergeant with Christmas tree and wreath.
Scott Cupp, Pelican Bay State Prison sergeant, has worked for CDCR for 29 years. During the holidays, he's one of many in CDCR to wear the Santa suit.

For nearly a decade, Sergeant Scott Cupp has put on the Santa suit to help distribute gifts at local schools, but he actually got his start much earlier.

Sergeant Cupp: Teenage Santa

“Back in 1986 when I was 17 years old, I was asked by the Bishop of my church to dress up as Santa Claus to go with him to give presents to a few less-privileged families. It was a blast. While I was giving the presents, internally I jumped with joy. This became a common practice for me until I went on a mission for my church in 1989. Upon my return, I was called back up to play the Santa for surprise presents and church parties,” Cupp recalls. “After a few years, I actually bought my own suit.”

That started a lifelong mission to help spread holiday cheer.

Over the years I have played Santa for church parties, family photos, and several secret Santa surprises.

“One year I played Santa Claus for a family (in need),” he said. “A husband was in the county jail (for spousal abuse) and the mother and her child relied on government assistance. A bunch of friends gathered presents at church and I found a Mrs. Claus to accompany me to brighten the family’s Christmas. No one ever told the young family who we were.”

When a staff member passed away a few years ago, Cupp and co-workers rallied to help.

“We had the opportunity to play Santa for a young family of a lieutenant here at our institution who passed away way too early. The whole prison got behind it and again Santa took flight in a firetruck with lights and sirens,” he said.

A decade of memories

In 2011, Cupp’s Santa was again asked to step up to help, but this time for school children in Del Norte County.

“We started at the most north school in our county, which is Smith River. The Pelican Bay State Prison Fire Captain gave me a ride to the school in the fire truck. We hit the lights and sirens when pulling onto the playground that first year,” Cupp recalls.

The students were very excited, rushing the truck when it stopped.

“The kids quickly swarmed me, and I had to hold on (to the truck) until the teachers could call the kids back to sit down. With the help of many elves from the prison — officers, fire captains, mechanics, many clericals and specialists staff as well as administrative — we delivered over 100 presents, donated by prison staff,” he said.

Some stories are difficult to hear

Being Santa sometimes means there are also some heartbreaking stories.

“One young child started crying after I gave him a bicycle. An elf quickly scooped the child up and gave him another present as well,” he said. “We later discovered the child’s family recently became homeless.”

On another occasion, a student asked for a special gift.

“A young boy told me that he wished that he could see his grandpa. I asked him where his grandpa lives, and he replied his grandpa had died. Tough request for any Santa. I asked him if he had special memories of his grandpa? He said he did, so I suggested that he close his eyes and go to those memories so he could always visit his grandpa,” Cupp said.

The suit has deeper meaning, going beyond one person.

“When I put the suit on, I know not only am I representing the spirit of Christmas, but I represent Pelican Bay State Prison and all its employees. These same employees have taken names of children, bought at least one of the requested presents and returned the presents to be wrapped. The elves here at the prison are awesome and very much appreciated,” he said.

CDCR, CCHCS volunteer army

Across CDCR, there is a small army of Santa and elf volunteers who make the holiday season a little brighter all around the state. It’s something Cupp knows all too well.

“It is a privilege to play Santa but sometimes it can be tough to hold back the emotions with the joy of all these children. A Santa can get choked up, too,” he said.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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