Prison

Prison

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (2)

In my previous blog post I shared some general thoughts about the Christmas season and the impact it can have in our prisons. This post focuses more on my own experiences of being incarcerated at this time of year.

Seasonal sales
Even in our overwhelmingly secular society it is sometimes hard to stomach the blatant commercialisation of what remains, in essence, the celebration of a religious festival. At least in our prisons it’s not as in-your-face as it is on the high street, although some establishments do seem to make a bit more of an effort to mark the occasion.

Ahead of my first Christmas in the nick I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I hadn’t given the subject much thought. Of course, I’d read some of the tabloid drivel about ‘luxury treats’ being laid on for cons, but never really believed it. Just as well, I suppose, because the reality was very different and I hate to be disappointed. 

The first sign that we were heading into the festive season was the appearance on one of the foyers outside the wing offices of an artificial Christmas tree. This nod in the direction of ‘normality’ – complete with a plastic star, fairy lights and a bit of tinsel – made for a bizarre contrast between the austere institutional décor, barred windows and polished lino floor. There it stood in glorious isolation for about a week or so. 

Seasonal cheer?
The tree must have been put in place and decorated by wing screws or chaplaincy staff while we were all banged-up, since it appeared suddenly, without any fanfare. Just after New Year it silently disappeared again. 

I had mixed feelings about the whole idea. On one hand the Christmas tree was a sign that the establishment was making an effort; yet on the other it served as an unhappy reminder of what was going on in the world outside. I think those cons who were affected most negatively were the lads who had young children at home. Every glance at the decorations must have reminded them of what they would be missing this year – and possibly for many more years to come.  

As far as individual cells were concerned, no-one would have thought of doing anything special, other than sticking up a few cards from family and friends on the pinboards above the bunks using prison toothpaste as an adhesive (both sticky tape and Blu-tack are contraband items in jail). Even this practice could be divisive in a shared pad (cell), since one con might have a big stack of cards, while his pad-mate might have received none. There are a fair number of prisoners who have lost touch with family and friends, so rubbing their faces in their own isolation isn’t a very kind or diplomatic thing to do.

Not exactly how the canteen works
Something that does change slightly ahead of Christmas is the availability of ‘special offers’ on the DHL canteen sheet. Even in the slammer, the commercial aspect of the festive season can’t always be ignored. The extra items – usually listed on a printed flyer about a month beforehand – included Christmas cards, mince pies, different types of confectionary and tangerines. Of course, in order to purchase any of these treats a prisoner needs to have sufficient funds in his or her spends account. This is one of those times of the year that those cons who get regular financial support from their families have a significant advantage over those who don’t. Even prison wings are deeply divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

For two Christmases running I pooled the credit in my spends account with a good mate and we sat for an hour a couple of weeks before Christmas Day coordinating our canteen purchases. This meant that we could share what little we were able to buy between us during the evenings when we were banged-up in our cell. 

Instantly recognisable to any con
At the same time – and this might amaze some readers – a fair number of prisoners actually buy small gifts for each other from the Christmas canteen sheet. It might only be a 50p bar of Euro Shopper chocolate or a disposable cigarette lighter, but in the slammer that can represent a fairly sizeable percentage of a weekly prison wage. Officially, the practice is prohibited under the Prison Rules, but it still goes on. 

At Christmas 2012, one of my mates was on the punitive Basic regime because he was finding it very difficult to cope with life inside. He was facing a pretty bleak time of it because his girlfriend had died a year earlier and he was still grieving. Like many cons he smoked heavily and found he had about £1.50 in his spends account. It promised to be a long holiday period banged up alone with no ‘burn’ (tobacco) to calm his nerves and no chance of buying any from the canteen.

Unknown to him, three of us clubbed together and bought an ounce of cheap rolling tobacco and some roll-up papers from the canteen sheet. During afternoon association on Christmas Eve the three of us sidled up to his locked cell door while no wing screws were around – he was being held on his own on the top landing – and quietly opened the flap over the spyhole. There he was, sitting on his bunk, head in his hands – a picture of dejection and utter misery.

Better than gold, frankincense or myrrh 
Like the three wise men bringing gifts, we closed the flap, knocked on the cell door and said “Santa’s here!” Then we slid the packet of tobacco and papers under his door. 

I won’t repeat what he said word for word as it contained a lot of joyful expletives, but it was about as close to “I love you, guys!” as any con will ever say to another. If we’d been caught in the act by a screw we’d probably have all been given a warning or even a nicking (put on a charge) for trafficking contraband to a lad on Basic regime, but I’d do it again in an instant. 

One year I was given a small maroon cloth for cleaning the lenses of my reading glasses by a fellow con. I still have it here on my desk as I’m typing this and I use it everyday. The most practical presents – and the ones that can mean the most – don’t have to be expensive. In fact, this one was a freebie from the local optician who visited the prison, but it still meant a lot.

Typical Christmas lunch in prison
Looking back in my prison diary for 2012 I can see that my Christmas lunch that year consisted of two half slices of processed ‘turkey roll’, roast potatoes, under-cooked sprouts, watery mixed veg and gravy. There was also what passed as Christmas pudding with a spoonful of custard. We were then handed the evening meal in a plastic bag and this included a Mars Bar, a can of fizzy pop and a slice of fruit cake, in addition to the usual stale bread sandwich made with bright yellow margarine. It was edible, but definitely not some kind of luxurious spread that the Daily Mail would like its readers to believe prisoners will be getting over the holiday season.

The rest of the day was spent either queuing for the wing payphones, playing Scrabble or watching television before early bang-up at around 4.30 pm. Once they had phoned home, quite a few cons opted to bang their own cell doors shut early, mainly because they really had no appetite for any forced Christmas ‘cheer’. Many, particularly the young lads, were missing their families desperately and couldn’t wait for the holiday period to be over so they could get back to work or education to take their minds off their loneliness.

To be fair, the members of staff who were on duty during the day were among the best that HMPS employs. Most of them were ex-armed forces and understood only too well what it means to be away from home over the Christmas period. I’d actually been out in the Balkans at the same time as one of the wing screws, although we’d served in different units. We even had a couple of mutual acquaintances in common, a fact we kept between ourselves.

A simple handshake at Christmas...
On Christmas morning one of the duty screws opened us up and asked how we were doing. Later, he stood by the office and shook the hand of every single prisoner as they went by and wished each one of us a happy Christmas. That might not sound much, but when a screw shakes a con by the hand in prison, it is a significant event. You suddenly start to feel human again.

Building these personal contacts helps to maintain the sometimes uneasy truce between the screws and most of the cons that enables our prisons to operate with a degree of consent and understanding from both sides. Without it, most closed nicks would quickly become very dangerous and unmanageable places for everyone, staff and inmates alike. Unfortunately, current staff shortages, restrictive regimes, new and petty rules imposed by the Ministry of Justice and long periods of bang-up are fast undermining the tacit, unwritten agreement that keeps the majority of our prisons running smoothly, at least most of the time. 

The Christmas holiday can be a very unhappy and tense period in any prison. This year could be much worse than usual and I can only hope that the sentiment of peace on earth and goodwill to all extends onto our prison wings, despite the criminal mismanagement of the system by politicians who really don’t have the first idea about how prisons really operate or the complex dynamics that keep the lid on these potentially explosive pressure-cooker environments.

My next blog post will be on my first Christmas back home on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) while I was still a serving prisoner.

20 comments:

  1. Alex, thank you for your blog, through your writing during the last few months, I have learned so much that I did not know about prisons. I hope you have a good Christmas. Thanks again, Sally.

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    1. Hi Sally, thank you for your kind comments. I'm delighted that you are finding the blog informative. I hope you also have a happy Christmas and New Year. Alex

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  2. I've sent a couple of your blog posts to a lifer, he found the ones about t-shirts, food and prison slang interesting.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and for circulating some of the posts to your friend who is in prison. I know that some other people have been printing them out and posting them in, which is great. Also, Jail Mail, the new monthly prison newspaper has reprinted one post in each of its first three issues, so the blog is getting through to serving prisoners, as well as staff.

      If the person you've sent them to has any comments, I'd be happy to have them on the blog.

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  3. A good read at this time of year. I was arrested on 27th December 2013 for Robbery which was committed on Xmas day 2013. I served 4 months between April and August this year at HMP Nottingham. I'm glad to be home and this will always be a tough/strange period for me. I hope everyone serving will be okay and stay strong during this tough period. Enjoy your Xmas

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    1. Hi Robert, thanks for sharing your story with us. I can see why Christmas would be memorable - for the wrong reasons. I've known quite a few lads who've done time at Notts and they all say that the food was terrible - and not enough of it! Good to hear that you'll be at home for this Xmas.

      I'm also thinking of the lads back inside and hoping there's no trouble this year. Anyway, hope you have a great Xmas this time round.

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  4. I wish all a good Xmas. Think n of my mate on remand in hmp Bristol. Vas

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    1. Hi Vas, thanks and I hope you have a great Xmas break too. Have you sent your mate a card? They do make a big difference, because it shows someone is thinking about you even when you're inside.

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  5. Hi Alex thanks for your blogs which has opened my eyes up to prison life and has helped me and my wife as our son was sentenced to 7 years and 4 months which he will serve 1/2 of the sentence and the rest on licence we are just coming terms with it. This will be his second Christmas away from home. He found prison life hard at first and is settling in now to prison life. Can you tell me will he be able to get ROTL towards the end of his sentence as he is serving under 4 years. Have very happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year

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    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I'm really pleased to hear that you are finding the blog helpful - that was always my intention when I started it back in July. One of the most important things, in my own experience, is strong family support. I can make all the difference and I'm sure that the support your son is getting from both of you will play a major role in him getting through his sentence and resettling back into society when he's been released.

      Funnily enough, I've just posted my third Christmas blog and that is about ROTL and the complicated rules that govern who gets it and when. Your son will need to be in a Cat-D (open prison) for a minimum of three months before he can apply for his first day leave (RDR). If you read the latest post and have any other questions, do get back in touch and I'll try to answer them based on the new rules published in August 2014.

      I hope you and your family also have a great holiday. I'm sure your lad appreciates all your love and support.

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  6. This year is so hard 4 me my partner,hes really down as its our daughters 1st xmas and also her 1st birthday the beginning of January thats hes missing.we also have a 4 year old daughter who cant understand why her daddy wont be home 4 santa coming.we thought he wud be out before xmas so for mths we told her daddy was working away for lots of money to give santa for her lots of toys.when he found out he wasnt getting out on time he was devasted .how do u explain to yr 4 year old that her daddy wont be coming home now for santa coming?

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    1. Thanks for sharing your own experiences as the partner of someone who is in prison. As is often the case, it's the family left behind who gets to serve the 'second sentence'. I assume your partner was hoping either for ROTL or early release on Home Detention Curfew (HDC or 'tag')?

      Sadly, as so many prisoners and their families discover, ROTL and HDC aren't always granted, even if the person is technically eligible. It is so difficult and that's what makes this time of year so miserable and stressful in prison. I've heard more than a few lads say that they wish they could just sleep through the whole thing and wake up in the new year!

      I do hope that he'll be able to phone you and the kids over Christmas and that this will be the last one he's ever away for. He'll also need your support when he does get out, so it's great that you are there for him.

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  7. My partner will be away this xmas and next. It saddens me to think just how down he will be. Still from what u wrote about others who have no family contact, cards, money etc at least he knows me and the kids will miss him as much as he misses us.

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    1. Thanks for your contribution. It's good to know that prisoners' families are finding the blog useful. Prisoners will often try to put on a brave face during times like these so as not to let on how they are really feeling, but in reality, Christmas - and family anniversaries - can be a really grim time inside. As I mention in the blog, lots of lads (and maybe women in the female jails) just bang-up in their cells early.

      You are also right about just how many people inside get absolutely nothing, not even a card, and no contact from any family or friends. Just knowing that others on the out care about you and will be waiting for you when you get released is something that keeps many prisoners going even when things are tough or miserable in the nick. That support is all important and it's great that he'll know that you and the kids love him and are waiting for him when he does walk through the gate.

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  8. I have written him. I'm awaiting his reply. Vas

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  9. Really enjoyed your blog. Hope you all have a great Xmas x w

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  10. Another excellent blog post. As an ex screw I certainly would not have knocked you for helping someone out. I did it myself on numerous occasions either with my own cigarette's which prisoners could then make quite a few roll up's out of. Or I would ask some of the lads to help someone out and they always did. Or I would get free tobacco signed off and give it to prisoners. I knew quite a few Officers who also did the same. We're not all bad lol. Thank you Alex. Kim

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  11. Another excellent blog post. As an ex screw I certainly would not have knocked you for helping someone out. I did it myself on numerous occasions either with my own cigarette's which prisoners could then make quite a few roll up's out of. Or I would ask some of the lads to help someone out and they always did. Or I would get free tobacco signed off and give it to prisoners. I knew quite a few Officers who also did the same. We're not all bad lol. Thank you Alex. Kim

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  12. I got my first electronic cigarette kit from VaporFi, and I enjoy it a lot.

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  13. This is excellent step taken by the authorities of jail i have also seen Worst Prisons in the World as compared to this

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