Wednesday, 23 December 2015

What I won’t be missing this Christmas

Last year I blogged about Christmases spent in prison, as well as the one I had at home on temporary release (ROTL). This year – which will be my second at home since my release in 2014 – I have been thinking about all the aspects of prison life at this time of year that I really won’t be missing.

Waiting for Christmas
The most obvious thing will be not missing family and friends (and the dog) during the festive season. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, for many prisoners the most severe aspect of their punishment is separation from loved ones, especially their own children and partners. Of course, there will be those who have the opinion that this is deserved and could be avoided by not committing crimes.

To some extent this is true, although it doesn’t necessarily apply to those who are unconvicted and are awaiting trial on remand or to those who are the victims of miscarriages of justice, let alone immigration detainees who haven’t even been accused of any crime other than not having the ‘right’ passport or nationality. Part of my own experience is that prison populations are a curious mixture of people who deserve incarceration and those who probably don’t. In practice, all are treated pretty much the same by the prison authorities.

Reading through my diaries from my time inside, there are plenty of other things I won’t be missing this year. Forced jollity is one of them. Prisoners in general have nothing to be merry about. Imprisonment takes its toll throughout the year, but Christmas is not a happy time for anyone, including staff. No-one really wants to be there (other, perhaps, than a few homeless people who prefer it to being out on the street in December), so it’s even more difficult to have to pretend that you are suddenly engulfed in happiness and merriment for a couple of days each year. A large number of cons simply prefer to bang their own cell doors shut and try to sleep through the empty days until work or education classes start again.

Forced Xmas jollity in prison
Some do make heroic efforts, however. I well recall a very fail man
in his 60s – who actually looked much older – who still managed to wish me and a few others he knew on the wing a “Merry Christmas”. He was in fact dying of agonising and undiagnosed cancer, a condition that hadn’t been identified by what passed as the ‘healthcare’ department at the prison. By the end of January he was dead. That is among my lasting memories of Christmas spent inside.

I also remember how I spent Christmas 2012 trying to persuade a close friend not to commit suicide by hanging himself in the run up to the ‘festive season’. Fortunately, in the end he decided against it and this year he will be spending the holiday with his mother and his brother at their home. He remains profoundly damaged by these experiences, but at least he is still alive even if ‘freedom’ means living in a hostel surrounded by other ex-prisoners with drug or alcohol dependencies and surviving on basic benefits, as it seems no-one wants to employ an ex-con who has no academic or professional qualifications.

Happy Shopper: prison canteen special
I definitely won’t miss the ritual of ordering ‘seasonal offers’ from the prison canteen sheet, including Happy Shopper mince pies that are sold at twice the price in the shops outside or other pricey confectionary that only makes an appearance on the canteen once a year. Nor will I miss receiving my sealed bag of canteen goods on delivery day only to discover that half of the order is marked ‘out of stock’. This is a Christmas shopping experience of sorts, but not as most people would understand it.

Instead, this year I’m thinking about my fellow cons who literally have nothing. No cards, no family support, no income (since prison jobs are scarce in this era of gross overcrowding) and, to be frank, little or no hope for their future. For many of them, Christmas is a time during which everything they don’t have, in prison or in many cases in the outside world, passes across the screen of their rented 14” prison TV sets. The ‘ideal’ happy family gathering around a table loaded with food and drink, giving and receiving presents, spending time relaxing with loved ones - all these things are for others, not them.

Long before many prisoners ended up inside our dysfunctional prison system, they had been marginalised outsiders. Those terrible scenes of deprivation that national charities show on TV every Christmas – hungry, abused kids surviving in misery and squalor – are known all too well to some of my fellow inmates. Don’t forget that we actually have TB cases in some of our more Dickensian prisons. Charles Dickens, that inventor of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, would probably be rightly outraged.

Watching the world on a cell TV
As one skinny, hollow-eyed lad of 21 – going on 50 – once remarked to me during a Christmas we endured together in a grim red-brick Victorian Cat-B, the only good thing about this time of year when he was a young child was that his brutal, abusive, drug-addicted stepdad was often too drunk to rape him yet again. No, I really won’t be missing hearing stories like that this Christmas.

Living, eating and sleeping in an average-sized family bathroom – with a toilet in one corner – with another man who was a complete stranger before we were locked in together doesn’t figure highly on my own Christmas list these days. Luckily, we did get on so things could have been much worse. Nevertheless, the long hours locked behind our cell door definitely dragged during the holiday period when there was no work (unless you were on the kitchens work party), education, library access or gym time on offer.

The tabloids' version of jail Xmas
And I definitely won’t be missing the prison’s attempt at providing a festive meal at Christmas lunchtime. That thin slice of processed ‘turkey’, undercooked potatoes and overcooked, watery veg really didn’t do much to make the season jolly. It was edible, but a far cry from the vicious lies and smear stories about ‘luxury food for lags’ that have already appeared in some of our tabloid newspapers.

Recently, I received a letter from a friend of mine who is now in one of England’s very worst Cat-B prisons. This is an establishment that receives unfailingly dreadful reports from HM Inspectorate. Living conditions are appalling. Virtually no clean prison clothing available from the stores so inmates stink; no work, no access to the library, no education courses, no gym time, little exercise, 20 minutes to take showers or phone home. His life consists of being locked up in squalor and enforced idleness for 23 hours out of each 24, seven days a week.

I actually felt embarrassed to be sending him a card expressing the wish that he will have a merry Christmas in such conditions, especially when I know full well that he won’t. The only saving grace is that he is due to be released next October, so at least the happy New Year part of the sentiment wasn’t completely facile.

Reality: 'turkey'
I do try to stay in touch with a small group of people I have met in prison. Some have now been released, others are still inside. I have sent off letters and cards to most, in a few cases I have also sent small amounts of money for their prison accounts. Not a lot, but enough to buy a few things from the canteen or get extra phone credit so they can call out (assuming they can get in the long queues for the three or four payphones on each wing).

Not all of those who have been released are doing well. Some are deep in depression and effectively homeless. Nevertheless, we do speak on the phone and at this time of year the conversation invariably turns to those Christmases we spent in prison. Although we are now spread across the country we still offer each other emotional support, particularly when things get difficult. I value those ties and they are an enduring legacy of my own imprisonment.

There is, perhaps, only one thing that I do miss about prison at any time and that is the mutual support that we prisoners gave each other in times of stress and unhappiness. That is how I know that there is goodness, and vulnerability, in pretty much everyone, no matter what crimes they may have committed. If only our prisons could harness that positive energy and encourage change for the better, then we might really be able to achieve a ‘rehabilitation revolution’.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2016.


  1. Why is it that all prison kitchens can take reasonable ingredients and turn them into something virtually inedible? This is one of life's mysteries that remains unsolved. It's a special talent (of sorts) to be THAT bad at cooking.

    The officers at the prisons where I spent Christmases made an effort to provide activities which were usually boring and pretty tacky but there was something to break up the monotony of two weeks of no work or education. But then boredom is the ever present bogeyman in prison.

    It always annoys me the vast amount of people who carp on about don't do the crime if you can't do the time bullshit as they clearly have no idea how easy it is to end up in prison. I met a huge number of people who shoulkd not have been in prison: victims of miscarriages of justice, women with mental health problems who should never have been in prison, victims of trafficking who should never have been in prison, women forced into prostitution who should never have been in prison, women who had defended themselves against an attack by an abusive partner who in the struggle ended up wounding or killing their partner and who ended up in that situation because the police failed them when they reported the abuse and who should never have been in prison, women who were driving a car and ended up in a serious accident where someone died and they ended up in prison despite not causing the accident, women in prison for not paying a council tax bill that wasn't even theirs. In fact I can categorically state the percentage of people who had actually set out to commit a crime was about 30% so about 70% shouldn't have been there. Gove could save a bundle if he let all those out who shouldn't have been there in the first place.

  2. Respect for staying in touch with the guys you met inside, Alex. It means a lot to have someone who understands where you've been and what you've been through. A happy Christmas to you and yours. Looking forward to more blog posts in 2016. Joe

    1. Thanks Joe. Merry Christmas to you and your family and a very happy New Year. Alex

  3. Sadly, I do know what happens to some of the food in hospitals and is possibly the same in prisons - it's taken by the staff!!!
    I wish the unfortunate people who have been incarcerated by a twisted system of Justice, a Happy Christmas.

  4. Your post made me cry, I can only imagine what the people I knew are still going through the never ending system. I had 2 festive periods in prison and I cannot describe how hard it was. I was lucky, I had a great partner who came to see me a lot, I don't think I would be here today without that. I think your post captures the crap of Christmas quite well. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think we can describe it to others, but unless you have lived through it, it can be very difficult to fully appreciate the impact of imprisonment, both on the prisoner and their family.

  5. Hi my partner has just been sent to prison for 9 years for non aggravated burglary and he has no previous convictions. I have been told the sentence is very high and his barrister has started an appeal. I assume as it stands, he would serve 4.5 years of this sentence and around 3 years in a closed prison and then 1.5 years in an open prison hopefully nearer home as he is now 3 hours away. Grounds of his appeal are that he entered into a plea bargain which was not adhered to and wrong credit applied as he pleaded guilty upon arrest 2 years ago, the whole case is quite bizarre, anyway, so say he gets an appeal and say gets 2/3 years off which is what he entered the plea bargain at & say hes served 18 months at the time the appeal is done, I assume his sentence will be adjusted accordingly then and he would serve less time in a closed prison? I am due to have our first baby while he is in prison this year and his mother has severe MS, so she won't be able to travel to see him. Are there grounds for this to be used to transfer him at some stage & I assume its a no no for him to be present at the birth? Sorry, lots of questions. Thanks

    1. Hi Victoria. Thanks for your question and I apologise for the delay in responding. I think your analysis of his sentence - which does sound very high for a first offence - is about right. It would be a 50/50 term - half in custody, half on licence in the community.

      I agree with what you wrote about the likely amount of time he will probably be in a closed prison. The normal maximum time in open conditions in around 24 months, but few prisoners (other than lifers) stay so long. On average I would say that 12-18 months is more normal for a fixed sentence like his. Obviously getting recategorised as a D-cat depends on reports from staff and his personal behaviour while he is in closed conditions, so it's not automatic.

      If the appeal is successful then whatever time he has spent in custody will be taken into consideration when a revised sentence is handed down. If he gets a substantial 'discount' for the guilty plea, then he is likely to serve most of the remainder in Cat-C before moving on to an open prison for the last 12-18 months. After at least three months at the open prison he should be eligible to apply for temporary release on licence, initially for a day, eventually for 4-5 days at home to prepare for resettlement.

      Transfers on compassionate grounds are pretty rare these days. Our prisons are very overcrowded and getting prisoners closer to home doesn't seem to be a priority of any kind at the moment. In theory they are suppose to try to locate inmates a reasonable distance from their release area, but to be honest that doesn't really kick in until Cat-Ds.

      He might try to apply for escorted ROTL for the birth, but I'll be honest and say that I've never known a single case being granted (even if the life of mother or child are at risk). The costs of staffing for escorted compassionate visits mean that HMPS has virtually eliminated them. Sorry about that, but an application can't hurt. He just needs to bear in mind that the likelihood is about zero. I hope this information helps.