Monday, December 29, 2014

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Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (2)

Alex Cavendish with the second 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.

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


Sean Smith said...

A very human account of prison life.However my own experience as a republican prisoner is the idea that the prison administration believe it's their job to punish the prisoner.They use theory's rather than the human approach to manage prisons.

AM said...

It is both humane and insightful. This guy is good. It is one of my favourite blogs. In him prisoners have a voice that can discern and articulate.