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.