Christmas for prisoners – Part 2

Home in time for Christmas

... Image: Orange County Archives

In an open prison, inmates may have the chance to go home. Image: Orange County Archives

“It was strange going back home to my family. I walked in the front door and the dog greeted me as if I’d never been away… I’ve been lucky, but so many prisoners have nothing to come home to.”

This is Christmas at home on Release on Temporary License (ROTL), 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 ROTL. Speaking to Prison Watch UK he describes his Christmas at home on ROTL.


How is Christmas different in a Category D prison?

There are more Christmas ‘activities’ and you dine communally – instead of alone in your cell – but by far the biggest difference is the chance to go on Release on Temporary License (ROTL). And at Christmas the prison divides into two groups: those who meet the criteria for ROTL and those who don’t.

What is ROTL?

Release on Temporary License is the prison governor’s permission for you to go on a five day leave from prison over Christmas, from the morning of the 23rd to the afternoon of the 27th.

Not everyone in an open prison will qualify for ROTL as an open prison is made up of a combination of people serving short sentences and lifers or inmates serving indeterminate sentences.

Main requirements:

  • Passed the three month period when you’re not allowed out of the establishment.
  • Not your first Christmas in prison.
  • Have successfully completed a number of day releases.
  • Have a family to go to.

So the number of prisoners who qualify for Christmas ROTOL is tiny. The year I got it, only 25 out of 400 of us went.

christmas at home

Christmas at home. Source: Flickr, Wishen Wijewardena

Is ROTL a good thing?

It’s absolutely vital for maintaining connections with family outside of prison but ROTL also causes a lot of animosity and jealousy behind bars. In the run up to Christmas everyone who qualifies for ROTL puts in an application.

So during that period, if you’re reported to the governor or put on report for any disciplinary issue, Christmas ROTL is gone for the year.

I remember the day they handed out the ROTL forms. I remember seeing it in the other prisoners faces. It was heartbreaking for those that didn’t qualify. Some of the lads, when they picked up their paper burst into tears because they hadn’t made it.

But for the prisoners who do qualify, they then have four or five days before they get go home and it’s not uncommon that some of the other prisoners will try and get them in trouble – anonymously informing authorities that they’ve been dealing drugs, or plan to abscond – solely to stop them getting Christmas ROTL. That’s why many prisoners, when they get ROTL, keep it to themselves. The first time people know about it is when they’re on the way to the minibus with their hold-all.


What is it like to go home for Christmas?

It is very odd. One day you’re a prisoner, wearing a prison uniform, and the next day you’re getting a train like a normal member of the public, wearing civilian clothes.

The practicalities of ROTL:

  • At 9am a minibus takes you from the prion to the local station.
  • You’re given a rail warrant.
  • You have your license conditions – not allowed to drink alcohol, can’t go to the pub or a bookies, etc.
  • Then you get on the train and make your way home unaccompanied.

ROTL is a very anxious time for a lot of prisoners. If you breach any of the rules and regulations you won’t be going back to an open prison, you’ll be going to a closed prison.


Getting the train home for Christmas. Source: flickr, Hannah Swithinbank

Why do you there is so much concern over ROTL?

Generally the population get worried at the thought of inmates being released for any amount of time because prisoners are, in their view, the very scum of the earth, they’re all rapists, murderers and paedophiles and letting them out for Christmas is dangerous, not to mention the chance it gives them of escape.

The Prison Reform Trust say:

“ROTL is a pivotal part of the process of resettlement and rehabilitation. For many people in prison, particularly those who are serving long sentences, the chance to experience ROTL and open prison conditions are a vital stage in the preparation for their safe release. They enable people to sort out jobs, housing and establish contact with families which help them to reduce their risk of reoffending. Less than 1% of releases on temporary licence fail and of these, only 6.1% involve an arrestable offence. This is the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 releases.”


How important is family for prisoners at this time of year?

For those prisoners who have family, the chance to go home and see them over Christmas is absolutely vital. It gives people something to look forward to, it makes them focus on the future. For prisoners with a fixed release date, it makes them think about the future, about where they’re going to live after prison, the job they’re going to have.

For prisoners who are lifers or on indeterminate sentences, family makes all the difference. The mental deterioration of prison conditions is not to be underestimated. Imagine the effects of living your life in an eight by six concrete room, in a constant state of boredom and anxiety – anxiety because you’re never sure what’s coming next.


Staying close to family is important, not just at Christmas. Source: Jason, Flickr

Family isn’t just important at Christmas, if a prisoner doesn’t have the support of a family that visits them regularly or even just sends a birthday or Christmas card, that means when they’re released that person isn’t going to have support in the community to start a life again in a world that may have changed dramatically during the time they were imprisoned.

If someone is literally coming out to nothing but a meeting with their probation officer and a room in the local hostel then they have no support, what are their chances of reform?



One Comment on “Christmas for prisoners – Part 2”

  1. Victoria Tuffs says:

    This is all so true it really is. I would like to email you Alex to ask your advice about something as my partner is in prison. Thanks


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