Christmas for prisoners – Part 1

It’ll be lonely this Christmas

... Image: Orange County Archives

Christmas is far from a happy time for most prisoners. Image: Orange County Archives

“You’re completely powerless. Apart from sending a couple of Christmas cards and speaking to family on the phone, there is nothing you can do, there is nothing you can offer or help with. You’re just alone.”

This is Christmas behind bars, according to former prisoner and Prison UK: An Insider’s View blogger, Alex Cavendish.

Until 2014 Alex was a serving prisoner and during that time spent two Christmases in Category B and C prisons and one Christmas at home with his family on Release on Temporary License (ROTL) – more on that next week. Whilst in prison Alex trained as a peer mentor and worked extensively in prison education departments and so has a vast experience of what Christmas means to many prisoners:

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One word that describes Christmas behind bars?

... Image: Alex Eylar

Prisoners could be locked up for 22 hours a day over Christmas. Image: Alex Eylar

Loneliness. I can say that without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve been there, sat in my cell thinking about what’s going on at home. Thinking back to happy family Christmases when I was a child, when my children were young.

Although you have plenty of people around you, Christmas isn’t a happy time. It’s a time of regret and loneliness. It also marks another year of your life going by, another year wasted.

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What happens on Christmas Day in a Cat C prison?

9am -11.30am Wake up for ‘association’. Then collect Christmas lunch to eat in cell.

11.30am – 1.30pm Locked up, so the staff can have their Christmas lunch.

1:30pm – 4pm  Time out of cell.

4pm Tea pack served and back to cell until 9am next day.

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Do you have a Christmas lunch in prison?

We do, the food is slightly better than normal. A traditional Christmas lunch is one or two slices of processed turkey (very cheap), a tiny stuffing ball, maybe if you’re lucky a chipolata sausage (like a cocktail sausage) with a bit of bacon wrapped round it, then just potatoes and rather soggy veg and gravy.

Afterwards everybody gets a pudding which is a basic standard suet and sultana pudding with custard or white sauce. And that’s it.

The idea that prisoners get some luxury meal is wrong. It’s all brought in on a budget – I think of £1.50 per prisoner.

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Are there Christmas decorations in prison?

 

Decorations can be a painful reminder of what prisoners are missing. Image: Serge

Decorations can be a painful reminder of what prisoners are missing. Image: Serge

There’s normally a Christmas tree but it’s in a part of the prison that most of the inmates don’t get access to, so it’s more for staff and visitors than inmates.

In a way, I think that’s because the staff are aware that Christmas is a very difficult time of year for many prisoners, especially those that have children of their own.

That’s why there’s such a spike in rates of self-harm and suicide attempts at Christmas. People are very conscious of what they’re missing on the outside.

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Are there Christmas games?

Any games that are organised are distractions from what can be a depressing time. Image: The Style PA

Any games that are organised are distractions from what can be a depressing time. Image: The Style PA

Christmas is a time of utter boredom, unless you’re working in the kitchens. Prisons basically shut down over Christmas and run on a skeleton staff, so there’s no work to be done.

And at a time or overcrowding and chronic under-staffing, Christmas might mean being locked in a cell for longer, sometimes 22 hours a day, possibly with a person you don’t even like. Just you and him and a 12 inch TV, and that’s Christmas.

That’s one of the reasons you see a spike in drug consumption over Christmas. Prisoners use drugs to take the edge off the loneliness and depression, they take whatever they can to get through the day.

The other reason drug use spikes is because with a skeleton staff over Christmas there won’t be any mandatory drugs testing. So the chances of being caught taking opiates which stay in the system for two or three days are quite low.

In reality, anything that is arranged for the day is more of a distraction than anything else. Prison authorities realise they need to take inmates mind’s off thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

With so few prison officers around, if someone does try to commit suicide and seriously self-harms on Christmas Day, it’s an absolute nightmare. Every other inmate on the wing has to be locked up until the injured prisoner is taken to hospital and getting an ambulance might be impossible. It’s also unlikely there will be any medical staff on site because the health centre will be closed.

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Do prisoners get presents?

Officially, no. The prison rules say that you cannot buy or give anyone anything. It’s considered to be a disciplinary violation if you do. The rule is there to prevent bullying and stop prisoners ‘baroning’ – buying a lot of something, lending it out and then demanding twice as much back in interest.

Though prisoners aren't supposed to give presents, they often do. Image: Shutter Fotos

Though prisoners aren’t supposed to give presents, they often do. Image: Shutter Fotos

So they’re not supposed to but in reality they do. In general, things you can get at the canteen you can give to other people, as long as you don’t do it right in front of an officers.

Family presents are a definite no. Thanks to the rules introduced by Mr Grayling in September 2013, prisoners cannot have anything sent in at all (now with the exception of books – thanks to Mr Gove). It’s very difficult to send anything out.

You’re allowed to send Christmas cards to your family, you can buy a packet from the canteen for about £1.50. And your family can send you Christmas cards but there are rules about those too. They can’t be padded, just basic printed cards. Even if children make cards for their dads when they’re at school, they’re not allowed to send those in. All hand-made cards are banned in case things are smuggled in inside them.

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Are prisoners able to see their family at Christmas?

Some inmates will organise it so that their family will visit over the Christmas period but with so many prisoners located hundreds of miles away from home it can often be very difficult and expensive. Especially if the prisoner’s family doesn’t have their own transport. That either means paying for a cab or relying on public transport, which is impossible at Christmas. 

So a lot of prisoners try and get their visits in before or after Christmas because they don’t want to put their family through the extra expense and stress.

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Next week…

Christmas for Prisoners – Part 2: What it’s like to be a prisoner at home for Christmas on Release On Temporary License (ROTL) and how festivities vary in an open prison (Category D).


 


One Comment on “Christmas for prisoners – Part 1”

  1. […] 2014 Alex was a serving prisoner and during that time spent two Christmases in Category B and C prisons and one Christmas at home with his family on ROTL. Speaking to Prison Watch UK he describes his […]

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