Friday, January 2, 2015

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Twas the Night before Christmas … in the Nick

Alex Cavendish with the concluding instalment in a commentary series 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.

This is the fourth and final part of my ‘Christmas in prison’ series of blog posts. I hope that each one has been interesting and informative in its own way, especially for those readers who have never had to experience being in prison at this time of year.

In many ways Christmas Eve is where the real magic of the season starts, at least while we are still children – or have young kids of our own. I remember the eager anticipation of the countdown to this night over the years. Putting out pillowcases (no miserly stockings in our house!) and then trying to get to sleep despite the excitement of waiting for Father Christmas.

Twas the night before Christmas...
When I was slightly older, it was about going to Midnight Mass in the local medieval church, followed by the walk back home in the early hours of the morning, particularly magical if it had been snowing. And then waking up to Christmas Day itself. 

We always used to spend the day with my grandparents – now both deceased for over a quarter of century – and for my sister and myself it was the undoubted highlight of the year. Even Easter (seemingly endless chocolate eggs) and birthdays couldn’t compete with Christmas and all the trimmings.

These are the memories that stay with us for the rest of our lives and it’s these bitter-sweet recollections that may haunt many prisoners who find themselves inside during the Christmas period. To be honest, I think I found Christmas Eve even more miserable than the following day itself. 

Two years ago, for example, we were unlocked at 08.45 in the morning and my pad-mate and I went to the gym for an hour. The rest of the time before lunch we just talked about anything other than Christmas. In the afternoon we watched TV and I phoned home. Then it was early bang-up with a stale baguette and a bag of crisps (the usual weekend regime). Luckily, my pad-mate and I had bought a few extra treats ourselves from the canteen specials sheet to share. Even so, neither of us had much to celebrate.

Not much to celebrate inside the nick
As I lay in my bunk that night after lights out, I couldn’t help but think back to my own generally happy childhood and all those Christmas Eves past. If I closed my eyes I could visualise how things used to be years earlier when life had seemed so simple and so exciting. Now I was locked up in a tiny concrete box with nothing but those memories.

Still, I considered myself to be very lucky. Not all my fellow prisoners had such happy childhoods and for some the memories are more about family conflicts, poverty, alcohol and drugs, and – for far too many – beatings and other kinds of abuse, some of it absolutely horrific. 

I’ve written in earlier blog posts about a friend I met in prison who was brutally abused by the various drug addicts that his own mother brought into their lives. He was forced to smoke dope from the age of six or seven, probably to knock him out so he couldn’t resist when he was being raped. Christmas was never a time when there was much he really wanted to remember. In fact, it was the things that he couldn’t forget that made him scream in his sleep in his cell during the night.

Prison 'hooch': can be deadly
Like many cons, he was on heavy doses of prescribed medication. He also ‘self-medicated’ with other peoples’ drugs that he’d obtained by buying them or through bullying those who’d collected them from healthcare. Anything to help him get through his sentence by coping with the memories that were slowly destroying him. His situation is far from being unusual among cons.

Christmas is also a time when there is a noticeable spike in the consumption of various other types of substances, including illegal drugs, so-called ‘legal highs’ and the infamous prison-brewed ‘hooch’ (fermented liquid). In my experience this is not really about celebrating Christmas or New Year; it’s mainly about taking the edge off the pain and depression. Perhaps, above all, it’s about trying to forget what’s going on outside or in your own troubled past.

Ingredients for 'hooch'
Prison-brewed hooch can be a very dangerous substance. It stinks and some of the ingredients don’t bear thinking about, although in the main it’s fermented fruit juice with bread (or Marmite – for the yeast) and lots of sugar added during the brewing process. In the worse case scenarios it can lead to alcohol poisoning, blindness and even brain damage. I’ve never known anyone actually die from drinking it, but that may also have happened at sometime.

In the absence of ordinary alcohol – which is also occasionally available at a very high price if smuggled in by bent screws or other prison staff – hooch is very popular over Christmas and New Year as it helps cons to ‘get their heads out of the window’ as it is sometimes called. For many inmates it helps to cope with the boredom of long hours of bang up at this time of year.

A bad batch of hooch on any wing is a screw’s nightmare. Having to call out the medics to deal with acute poisoning due to this noxious stuff is bad enough, but it can also spark off drunken violence and other serious misbehaviour. 

HMP Ford: not such a happy New Year
The infamous prison riot at HMP Ford, an open nick in Sussex, on 1 January 2011 was due to a major crackdown on the illicit consumption of alcohol by inmates, including midnight raids by the staff on New Year’s Eve when they intended to test prisoners to find out who had been drinking. The eventual outcome was a riot, the burning of part of the prison and damage amounting to £5 million. 

I’m hoping that this Christmas and New Year our prisons are peaceful and that there are no casualties – either prisoners or staff – due to violence, drugs, hooch, suicide or any other disorder. However, the situation doesn’t sound very positive. I’ve just received a letter from a friend who is still in a Cat-C prison and he reports that conditions are grim at the moment, with very restricted regimes, constant staff shortages, regular cancellation of activities and a general sense of frustration and anger on the wings.

Anyway, despite that less than seasonal note, I’d like to wish everyone who reads this blog all the best for Christmas. Since I launched this site on 2 July 2014, I’ve been genuinely amazed at just how much interest there is in prison issues. It’s also great that so many readers have contributed with comments or shared their own experiences of prison – either as someone who may be facing imprisonment, as an ex-prisoner or as the family or friends of someone who is inside at the moment. Thank you all for reading and for contributing.