Christmas in prison: a Christmas in hell?

Richard Scatchard describes his experience

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The festive season is upon us, the shops full of all sorts of expensive gifts – ‘things that one has always needed’! It is supposed to be the season of happiness and joy for everyone. As we know much of it is unreal, an opportunity for commercial exploitation. For many people, it can, in reality, be a period of great sadness, loneliness and strife. You can look at Christmas in a number of ways: one could say that it is people’s own choice to spend large sums of money; or, one can see it as a time when parents/individuals are left in an impossible situation – so much pressure to buy ever more extravagant gifts and food and drink. So much of twenty-first century Christmases seems to be at odds with the Quaker testimony of simplicity.

‘Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?’
Advices & queries 41 (part)

So what of the eighty-four thousand prisoners, like me, who spend the festive season locked up behind a prison cell door in Britain? What does Christmas mean to them? What is it really like? Well, in reality, there isn’t a nice, easy, single answer to any of these questions. As with the rest of the population, we are individuals, not some sort of amorphic group about whom generalisations can be made. Not all prisoners are from broken homes or are brought up to a life of crime – as the press or social workers would have us believe. It may be suggested that to much of the British population, prison is prison – a prison is the same whether it’s situated in London, Newcastle or Scotland. Most people don’t realise that there are different categories of prison: high security prisons; medium category prisons; and open prisons. The situation, however, is much more involved than this; there are huge differences between prisons, even though they are, on paper, officially the same category of prison. Some prisons have a reasonably good atmosphere, where a reasonable level of respect exists between prisoners and prison staff. While other prisons, which can even be located in the same city, are horrendous and can be a living hell. Some prisons are no more than glorified cattle sheds, in which one can begin to feel that there is a deliberate campaign by the authorities to remove all sense of dignity and self‑respect from prisoners. Also, in some, it is a matter of survival (physical and mental) – learning to cope with isolation, drugs and bullying.

However, no matter how bad or good a prison is, it is still a prison; and the problems of these jails for many inmates can become greatly magnified at Christmas time. Why? This is for many reasons. First, prisoners are human! They do have feelings. Many have great difficulties in dealing with their feelings – this has often been at the root cause of their offending behaviour. Being locked up, isolated and separated from family and friends (often by many hundreds of miles) at this ‘special time’ creates extra tensions. The statistics clearly show that levels of depression and suicide, as well as the making of illegal alcohol (‘hooch’) and the smuggling and taking of drugs, rise significantly during this period. Christmas is often a time when an ever greater strain is placed on relationships and families: wives and children separated from their husbands and fathers. Not getting a visit or a Christmas card can be a huge issue for many prisoners. As in the outside world, there is a great deal of loneliness at Christmas in prisons – many prisoners have been disowned or lost contact with the ‘outside world’. Turning the television on to see happy festive programmes, or watching the Great Escape or Porridge for the one hundredth time, doesn’t make Christmas a cheery one!

At Christmas and New Year a special prison regime operates, often with more time being spent locked up behind one’s cell door. This also affects prison staff, who would clearly prefer to be at home with their family. Christmas dinner? Yes, we do have turkey, a ‘special selection’! Again, prison food varies greatly from an inedible slop to quite presentable, edible food. However, owing to the changed prison operating hours at Christmas the food can often be ruined by the time you get to eat it. It has often been sat in a heated trolley for hours shrivelling up into a piece of ‘turkey cardboard’, or Brussels sprouts with all their taste and goodness steamed out of them. Make no mistake, in some prisons the Christmas dinner is better than many people on the outside are able to afford to sit down to. Also, in many prisons, the staff, chaplaincy team and visitors go to great lengths to make the festive season the best it can be in prison. In the past, they would arrange little gifts and small parcels of sweets to give out, as well as giving out Christmas cards. In recent times this has been stopped on the grounds of ‘security’. Special Christmas religious services, quizzes and competitions are held.

So, in reality, life in prison at Christmas can vary a lot. It often comes down to which prison one is in; but, much more importantly, it’s down to the attitude and the state of mind of the prisoner. To some prisoners, Christmas is still the best time of the year, something different and something to look forward to and remember. To others, it is the worst time of the year; one to get through as soon as possible – dying for things to get back to ‘normal’, the standard, predictable, daily routine. It obviously has to be remembered that the vast majority of prisoners spending Christmas behind bars are there because of their own actions – it is not society’s fault. Sometimes in prison it is easy for prisoners to start feeling sorry for themselves, rather than remembering or taking responsibility for the extra pain and distress they have put their families, friends and victims through – something felt even more so at Christmas time.

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