What’s it like spending Christmas behind bars?

25 December 2021

6:00 PM

25 December 2021

6:00 PM

It’s customary these days for people to complain that Covid restrictions mean everyday life ‘is like living in a prison.’ Believe me: it isn’t. So let’s spare a charitable thought for those whose rooms have no handles to hang a stocking on and those whose job it is to make Christmas incarceration more bearable for them.

This morning, a prison population roughly the size of Scunthorpe spread across a crumbling penal archipelago of over 100 jails will wake up to a day difficult enough for most on their own outside. But for inmates, Christmas Day is made more so by pandemic restrictions, isolation from families and the municipal smell emanating from Big Dave in the bunk above. Those of you who are familiar with my thoughts on our prison system and how it is run will recognise that I’m not exactly a bleeding heart on criminal justice reform. Yet as a former prison governor, I can tell you from actual front-line experience as opposed to crime theory waffle that Christmas in prison is where our shared humanity is most apparent and most important.

The invisible, largely unthanked people in uniform who get up and leave their own families to work the Yuletide shifts know all about how important this is. Imperceptibly, even behind bars, the workplace changes with a bit of tinsel colour to feed the starving cheer of those in their care. Transactional exchanges become more personal and intimate even in places Joseph would have turned down for a cow shed. These men and women working on our behalf know the power of a kind word or an extra favour on such holy days. Despite appalling rates of violence against them, they will go on duty on Christmas day like every day to try to make a difference, probably saving people from death in the process without even knowing it. And that difference is everywhere at this time of year.

I vividly recall watching the faces of prisoners as the Salvation Army band played carols in the imposing austerity of HMP Wandsworth’s centre. In the moment we were, if not equal, at least on the same page. At this time of year too, support staff work their socks off to bring some cheer and light to people who have been forgotten and, in the process, have forgotten their own humanity. In the bleak midwinter, distress and isolation is the prisoner’s lot; all too frequently it is a lethal burden. The jail chaplaincy works small miracles over the season to bring faith and hope to people who have through their crimes made themselves forsaken. Prison catering managers working on a minuscule budget work the parable of loaves and fishes into the best meal of the year. What would Jesus do? This.

Many of the 79,000 people emerging from their cells for an hour on Christmas day, if they are lucky, to call their children, fully deserve to be there. But let’s not forget that many of them look like you or I. A combination of stupidity, bad decisions and malevolence has put them inside and there, but for the grace of God and a measure of luck in life’s lottery, go we.

The prophet Isaiah, recalled in a speech last year by the former convict and now prison chaplain Jonathan Aitken, spoke of the ‘treasures of darkness.’ He was referring to the extraordinary response and goodness of people that emerged during a pandemic which haunts us still. The same treasure is to be found in the darkness he would be so familiar with, hanging over our prisons at this time of year. But the treasure lies there too in the potential many people within those walls have to lead a better life and the sacrifice of prison staff to help them get there. We see this most clearly at Christmas time. This comes to pass, when a child is born.

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