Christmas in prison

23/12/2016 00:01:00

Christmas day in prison. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. For over 10 years I spent every Christmas morning in prison and the only conclusion I reached was that every individual has to find their own way through a difficult season.

So who’s there?

It could be a prisoner spending their tenth Christmas in a cell, or someone sent to prison the day before. It could be someone surrounded by cards from their family, or someone cast adrift and ignored. It is always a group of prisoner listeners, supported by the Samaritans, busy helping their peers to cope, whatever their own personal sadnesses may be.

It will certainly sometimes be an officer wishing they were at home with their family. But I found Christmas Day was also quite often a duty staff with their own problems would seek out to avoid a Christmas spent alone.

It may well be the choir from a local church coming in to sing carols, but then, like me, disappearing to a celebration with family and friends.

And what’s it like?

In my experience, it was always pretty sombre. The tradition was to serve a cooked breakfast followed by an implausibly early cooked lunch a couple of hours later. Tea comes more or less as the light fades so day staff can get away, and the handful of staff who will be there all night begin the longest shift of the year.  My memory is that there was never any staff sickness on Christmas Day—there would be no slack in the detail of staff rostered to attend, but an expectation nevertheless that all the cell doors would be unlocked. I doubt that many prisons can now make that guarantee.

The short periods between meals might include organised table tennis or pool competitions, but the real pressure is to get to the front of the queue for phones, and stock up on the tobacco and chocolate (and much else besides) you might be owed before the long bang up begins. Between Christmas and New Year time slows almost to a standstill—no work, no education, limited gym. The double canteen issued before Christmas is probably gone by Boxing Day. The start of a new year is more likely to serve as a reminder of a year wasted, than inspire hope for what is to come. It’s no wonder that tension builds.

At Christmas the small kindnesses between people all locked in a prison together, whatever their reason for being there, mean even more than they do throughout the year. You notice how the best people can make the experience bearable for those around them. So we should spare a thought for the people living and working in our prisons this Christmas, as each of them finds their own way through it.