Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (1)

Almost without fail every year in the run up to Christmas one or other of the tabloid newspapers will run a feature slagging off the Prison Service for giving cons a special meal on Christmas Day. I suppose that it’s become as traditional as Father Christmas, turkey and mince pies and the Queen’s Speech. Well, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without giving the lags a good kicking, would it?

The Daily Mail's idea of a con's Xmas
Apparently, this is also a well-established custom in the US where the right-wing media likes to have a pop at prisoners having special food for Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, I suppose that in austerity Britain these stories do play to a particular audience, mainly comprising the fully paid-up members of the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. I am rather surprised Nigel Farage hasn’t jumped on this bandwagon yet, though not doubt he would, had the thought crossed his mind.

In the past, we have also had media outrage at the very idea of cons being given any type of entertainment over the festive season, whether that be in the form of carol concerts, competitions, quizzes or sporting activities in the gym. Personally, the idea of a con being awarded a bar of cheap chocolate or some Lynx shower gel for winning the wing pool tournament on Christmas Day doesn’t really get me riled – and I’ve been a taxpayer pretty much my whole adult life, other than when I was in the slammer myself.

Having been in prison myself for a couple of Christmases, I’ve come to realise that anything the prison management lays on in the way of special meals or entertainment is actually a diversionary tactic to distract cons’ attention in a bid to try to reduce the amount of suicide and self-harm that goes on around this time of year – something that no experienced wing officer or governor ever underestimates. In fact, Christmas – like birthdays or family anniversaries – can serve as a trigger that may send men and women (and some young people) who are living on the edge, over it – sometimes with tragic consequences.

Christmas inside: another year
The problem with major occasions in the calendar – like Christmas – is that they also mark the passing of yet another year. For some prisoners, particularly those serving life or other indeterminate sentences, it’s a stark reminder of how many years in confinement they have served with no end in sight. 

I recall one lifer telling me that last Christmas was his 27th in prison. He’s still inside, so this year will be his 28th. He’s been in jail since he was 20. Another will be marking his 33rd Christmas as a con. 

I’m making no apologies or excuses for either of them. Their offences – which they’ve both admitted – were horrendous, but if anyone has doubts about the effect of a life sentence, physical and mental, then slowly ageing in a concrete box for several decades or longer with no realistic prospect of release probably fits the crime much better than quick capital punishment ever could. Slow retribution that grinds a human being down is so much more effective. Some might argue it’s also less humane than a speedy end, although personally I’ve been opposed to the death penalty myself for many years.    

Experienced wing screws know that Christmas can be very tense time of year. For some cons serving shorter sentences or just starting out on much longer stretches, it could be the first they’ve ever spent away from their family and friends. The stark contrast between being at home with your family (even if it might be a fairly dysfunctional one) and being locked up with hundreds of strangers can cause breakdowns or trigger deep bouts of depression around this time of year.

A time for grief, loneliness and regret
For others it can bring back bitter or sweet memories of Christmases past, perhaps with loved ones who’ve since died while they have been in prison. I know from having supported fellow cons at Christmas time that this is when the death of a partner, a parent or especially a child can come back like an overwhelming tsunami of grief and despair. Memory can, quite literally, be a killer in prison.

I’m going to deal in more detail in my next blog post with the Christmas routine in those prisons I’ve spent time in, but one of the overwhelming emotions among many prisoners during the long holiday period is sheer boredom. Other than a few key workers (kitchens and cleaners, mainly), the vast majority of cons typically spend the period over Christmas and the New Year on a restricted, lockdown regime, often depending on the security category of the establishment. 

Even before the current staffing crisis really started to impact significantly on the running of normal regimes in our prisons, the festive season was a time when the shop was being minded by a skeleton team. In a typical quiet Cat-C nick this probably meant having a duty governor grade in, a couple of senior officers and maybe two screws on each wing or houseblock, plus security spread pretty thinly. The library, education department and gym would all be closed. 

"I got caught breaking in!"
In a Cat-D (open) prison, the numbers of staff on duty might be half that, mainly because until last year there was an established practice of trying to get as many cons as were eligible under the rules out of the gate for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) so they could spend four nights at home with their families (23-27 December). The prospect of getting Christmas ROTL was so strong that no-one who had a realistic chance of going home wanted to screw up in the months leading up to the moment that he or she received the magic ROTL-5 form signed by the governor that authorised them to go. 

Any negative entry in a prisoner’s record or a disciplinary charge could easily derail the whole application, so ROTL could be a very effective tool for control and behavioural modification, even for a con who was otherwise a jack the lad or a complete numpty. However, since Chris Grayling tightened up the rules for ROTL following some very high profile incidents when prisoners committed further offences while on temporary leave, I doubt that there will be as many D-cat inmates out and about this Christmas.

At least in an open nick there’s no bang-up as such, just a unit or wing curfew. To be honest, you could probably run most Cat-Ds with a skeleton crew of a few experienced screws, a gate officer, a kitchen manager and a half-dozen ‘red-bands’ (inmate trustees). The real impact of the current chronic staff shortages will be felt most acutely in the closed prisons, especially the Cat-Cs where the cons to screw ratio has now got very silly. Transferring staff to plug gaps in other establishments – so-called ‘detached duty’ – over the coming holiday period is going to make matters even worse.

Closed over the holiday period
My prediction is that some very restricted regimes will be run across most of the closed prisons between Wednesday of next week until at least after New Year. Staffing ratios at Cat-A establishments are always higher for obvious security reasons, so perhaps the day-to-day running of the high security dispersal nicks won’t be affected too badly (although it would be great to hear from any staff who may know otherwise), but I am willing to bet that a fair number of Cat-B and Cat-C establishments will be on effective lockdown over Christmas. 

Staff shortages also mean that it’s not going to be easy to monitor prisoners who are already on the ACCT (Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork) system owing to them being at risk of self-harm or suicide. Some prisons may resort to moving these high risk inmates to higher security establishments – usually from a Cat-C to a Cat-B – where they might find themselves placed in Care and Separation Units (ie down the Block). I actually know a couple of specific cases where this practice was used between Christmas 2012 and New Year 2013, causing massive disruption for the individual concerned, including cancelled family visits.

And of course, if there is a suicide or serious incident of self-harm on a prison wing during the Christmas period, then that is likely to result in a lockdown while the person concerned is being dealt with, their cell cordoned off, reports written and the mess cleaned up. Meanwhile, all the other cons will be locked behind their doors, many seething with resentment.

Legal and illegal highs: easy to get
Given the current easy availability of drugs, both legal and illegal, on most prison wings, I imagine that there will be an upsurge in consumption, particularly among younger cons who will try to smoke or swallow almost anything in a bid to beat the long days of boredom during the holiday season bang-up. This will fuel debt, bullying and possibly violence, although some screws may well turn a blind eye to anything that will leave prisoners sleeping soundly on their bunks, rather than kicking off or pressing their cell call bells incessantly. On the other hand, there may be quite a few overdose cases to sort out or perhaps even a con choking on his or her own vomit after smoking Black Mamba, Spice or some other synthetic high. 

Not a substitute for phoning home
If there are sufficient wing staff available and no intelligence of any trouble brewing, then there could be perhaps a couple of hours of association during which time prisoners will be able to join the long payphone queues in order to call home at their own expensive or else take a shower or have a quick game of pool or table-tennis. Otherwise, cells will be opened for meals and then it will be bang-up again. I’m guessing that most wing managers will want to get everyone behind their doors by about 4.00 pm so the day shift staff can get off home to their own families. 

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I suspect that there will be a lot of frustrated and disgruntled cons over the next week or so and no amount of ‘goodie bags’ containing a stale sandwich, a can of pop, a Mars Bar and a slice of fruitcake is going to compensate for not having had an opportunity to phone loved ones on Christmas Day because there aren’t enough ‘kangas’ (officers) to open the doors and to oversee association. That’s where there could be trouble ahead… 

More on Christmas in prison in my next blog post. 


  1. I'm sure I speak for all the readers of this blog in wanting to say thank you to you, Alex, for giving us some of the year's most interesting reading matter.

    Best wishes for the festive season, and please keep blogging through 2015.


    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Richard. I'm glad that the blog is proving to be informative. I certainly aim to continue blogging (assuming Mr Grayling doesn't order me banged up again!)

      Have a great holiday season and a happy New Year.

  2. Let's hope it sparks some action finally. Being coupe up like a sardine ain't fun. Strangeways ere we come. Vas

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vas. My main hope is that we get through the present crisis without anyone getting hurt or killed! Unfortunately, the situation isn't getting any better.

    2. Vas, you seem to want violence to occur. Violence very rarely solves anything, if you can't contribute positive suggestions then I for one am glad that prisoners serving time currently can't get riled up by your poisonous suggestions.

  3. The media lies over prison conditions is infuriation. Every Daily Mail reader would believe that every inmate has Sky TV and a lavish banquet on Christmas Day. Anybody who's seen the inside of a prison knows that so isn't true.

    I only spent one Christmas in prison, it was far from pleasant. Management did lay on a 'special' dinner. The worst Christmas dinner I've had in my life - reconstituted 'turkey' I think they called it, with some of the trimmings. No more special than the usual fare but of an equally low quality and standard - just different to the norm.

    The whole wing was downbeat. Guys missing their children, partners and parents, it was a grim day. I did manage to call my mother on Christmas day. Nice to have a chat but devastating for me to hear her crying on the phone because I was elsewhere.

    Maybe spare a thought for the estimated 200,000 children who will spend this Christmas with a parent banged up. Criminals need punishing, of course, but imprisonment extends so much further.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experiences of prison. You are quite right. The tabloid misrepresentation is sometimes really shocking. When I hear the old lie about Sky TV being rolled out again and again it makes me want to shout!

      I'll be blogging next on my own experiences of Christmas in prison, but your description of the 'special' meal sounds spot on... turkey roll and spuds! The canny lads ordered the chicken option. It was better. I really doubt that any of the overpaid hacks who churn out the lies about conditions in the nick would be able to stomach the sort of food cons survive on. On the other hand, quite a few of them have been banged up recently, so maybe they have learned the truth the hard way!

      Your description of the atmosphere on the wings is also very accurate - "a grim day" all round. I got the impression that most cons just wanted to get it over and done with so the regime got back to normal, including work and education. At least having something to do took our minds off missing family and friends.

      And of course, as you so rightly highlight, it is the families of prisoners, especially their kids, who suffer throughout the sentence. Missing the person who is in prison, as well as many facing poverty at home and bullying at school. Sadly, the statistics also suggest that having a parent or carer in prison means that the child left behind is much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system themselves, thus risking perpetuating the whole miserable cycle. As a country we really deserve better than this.

    2. Maybe those who are parents should consider their children before commiting acts that could see them imprisoned.

      I know their are many reasons people end up in prison but personal responsibility should be an issue that is at the forefront.

    3. I expected to hear a shouty voice when you made your comments on Newsnight.

    4. Thanks for your comments. Of course, in many cases that is a fair point and our prisons house a large number of people who have been extremely selfish - both towards others, as well as their own families.

      However, I think it is always worth remembering that at any time between 10-15 percent of prisoners are being held on remand awaiting trial (or in some cases waiting for charges being dropped), as yet unconvicted of any offence. Even if they are eventually convicted, around 75 percent will walk out of the courtroom having been given non-custodial sentences.

      I've also sometimes reflected on the fact than pretty much anyone who drives a vehicle on the road is potentially only a momentary lapse of concentration away from a serious accident that could result in criminal charges. In such cases, there may not be an intention to commit an offence, even if that is the outcome. While I was in prison I met a significant number of people who would never have seen themselves as criminals prior to whatever accident, momentary loss of temper or other error of judgement put them in the dock. Sometimes these situations aren't about making rational choices, even if the person still has to face up to the consequences.

    5. Really? I'm not sure I've ever had a 'shouty' voice! I do like to try to get my facts straight and I don't have much time for politicians and pundits who babble nonsense or perpetuate myths, but I like to think I'm well-balanced and weight up all the arguments...

  4. Alex, thank you for a wonderful blog this year - it's been so informative and interesting. Thank you for your posts I hope you and your family have a very happy Christmas

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm delighted that you are finding the blog interesting.

      I am convinced that it is important for first-hand information about our prisons - positive and negative - to be as widely available as possible. There often seems to be a self-imposed blackout in much of the national media about prison issues (other than the lies and misrepresentations published in some of the tabloids), so social media and blog at least give us a fighting chance to contribute to the wider debate about the criminal justice system! I am definitely planning to blog on during 2015.

      Have a great Christmas and a happy New Year!

  5. An non. Yes I want violence cos talk in ain't doing nothing to solve the prison crisis. It worked in strangeways n will work again. So listen u fool grow up n get real cos u r probably a screw n just another conservative idiot. U will never understand poor people cos u head is so far up your are. Vas

  6. I have experienced christmas in prison and from a womans perspective it was extremly grim, I spent the day either waiting to use the phone, when we were allowed association, so I could speak to my husband and kids (who were also having an awful time) or crying in my cell, knowing I had'nt chosen or wrapped their presents. The following year I was Rotl'd, still difficult to leave them and go back, I cried all the way back on the train.
    I was in a fairly decent prison in Sutton, now no longer a womens prison, and now on my second xmas after release, my heart still goes out to all the girls banged up, I'll never forget what it was like.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing with us your personal experiences of Christmas inside. We really could do with more contributions from women who have served time as I'm very much aware that I can only contribute from a male con's perspective.

      I think the long queues for the wing pay-phones during Christmas association are among my clearest memories. I think we had four (working) pay-phones between around 100 of us, although I know in some nicks the ratio is much worse. In those prisons where there are serious staff shortages - a majority now - I fear that waiting to phone home could prove a flashpoint, especially if association is effectively cancelled or reduced to an hour or so.

      You are also spot on in your description of having to return to prison at the end of the home leave. Knowing that you've got to travel back and report in is really difficult. Thanks for letting readers know how it affected you. Enjoy Christmas at home with your family this year.

    2. If there's anything I can help with Alex, from a females outlook of life inside, let me have an email addy and I will contact you via that.

    3. Thanks for your message. That would be great. I'm always up for guest contributions and any other information about prison life. My e-mail is: Cheers, Alex

  7. its awesome to present a gift on this eve have a look at following gifts if your are still in a dilemma that what should i get for Christmas thanks for sharing