Sunday, December 28, 2014

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Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (1)

Alex Cavendish with the first in a four part commentary on Christmas in prison. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

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.