It might be the happiest, most family-filled day of the year for most of Britain’s population – but for the 84,000 people who will spend it behind bars, Christmas will instead be an achingly painful twenty-four hours in which the punishment of being in prison was never more keenly felt.
There’s no time of the year when the gulf between the outside and the inside is greater than at Christmas,’ says Helen Baly (OK), a Catholic who’s the co-ordinating chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs in London. ‘We know it’s a very difficult day for all the prisoners. Of course they’d like to be at home, and with their families, and of course it’s the day in the year when they most miss that privilege.’
Her sentiments are echoed by Fr Brian Gowans, chaplaincy adviser to the Scottish Prison Service, who has spent sixteen years working in prisons. ‘It’s a tough time,’ he says. ‘What you tend to find is that many prisoners get through it by trying to make it as normal and ordinary a day as possible – that’s a very common coping mechanism. So you see people who try desperately to just do exactly what they always do, without making any concessions at all to the fact that it’s December 25.’
One of the hardest prisons to be in at Christmas is surely Holloway, the country’s biggest women’s prison. More than half of all the women in British jails are mothers, and a third of them have children under five. ‘It’s desperately difficult for these women to have to be apart from their children on Christmas Day,’ says Sr Kathleen Diamond, who’s been the Catholic chaplain there for the last twelve years. ‘We really look out for them – we’re very conscious, for example, that it’s a time when women prisoners might be more likely to self-harm.’
Like all prison staff, chaplains are well aware that there are people on the outside who take the view that people who’ve committed offences are in no position to complain about the consequences – but what’s less well understood, they believe, is how deep and difficult the wounds go at Christmas, and how easy it would be to cause further pain by over-egging the festivities. ‘We’re very conscious of the need to strike a balance between marking Christmas without ramming it down their throats – we want prisoners to have the chance to worship and to feel part of the Church’s feast, but we don’t want to make their lives more difficult than they already are,’ says Helen.
To that end there are, of course, Christmas carol concerts and other services in all prisons in the UK, and some even have services to which prisoners’ families are able to be invited. ‘Many prisons have concerts with the local Salvation Army band, and it might be that families can come along too – it’s not a very widespread idea, but it does happen,’ says Fr Gowans. At Holloway, Sr Kathleen is involved in organizing a family day a few days beforehand, when children can come to visit their mothers for longer than usual, and enjoy special activities including a bouncy castle and games and trips to Santa in his grotto. ‘It’s not the children who are being punished, but it’s very tough on them to have Christmas without mum,’ she says. ‘But the family day gives them a focus that’s fun and brings them together.’ For the Holloway carol service, a few days earlier, she always tries to encourage the women from the mother and baby unit to come along. ‘It’s lovely to have babies at a Christmas carol concert – we all love them being there,’ she says.
One of the most depressing aspects of Christmas for many prisoners is that there’s never any visiting time, and getting to use the telephones can be difficult on a day when so many are trying to call loved ones. ‘There’s a lot of frustration over that,’ says Fr Gowans.
Another thing prisoners, especially those who are parents, miss is the chance to give presents to those they love. ‘When I worked at a young offenders’ centre I realized that, though the men there were so young, many were fathers,’ says Fr Gowans. ‘And I developed a scheme whereby at the visit nearest to Christmas, each dad could give his child a present.
I think when people sit down and think about it they realize that,
though prisoners have done something they shouldn’t have done,
being locked up at Christmas is a very tough number
‘Of course there are security concerns about this sort of thing, but we managed to devise a system that allowed the dads to first wrap presents up that we provided, and then eventually we moved on to a situation where they could pick a present themselves from a selection we’d brought in – that made it more personal.’ All the presents, says Fr Gowans, came from local parishes. ‘We’d ask people in the area to buy an extra present or two when they were doing their own shopping, and they have always been enormously generous. I think when people sit down and think about it they realize that, though prisoners have done something they shouldn’t have done, being locked up at Christmas is a very tough number.’
At Holloway, Sr Kathleen helps run what’s called the Angel Tree project, another scheme to enable mothers in prison to send their children something on 25 December. ‘What happens is that some time in October or November I give out forms, and the women write down what they’d like for their child,’ she explains. ‘We then get the presents and they’re wrapped up by volunteers and sent to the children – the mothers write the gift tags, so as far as the children are concerned, what they’re getting is a present from mum. It’s a much-loved scheme, and it makes a real difference to the bond between the mothers and their children.’
What prisoners miss is the chance
to give presents to those they love
As for the prisoners themselves, prisons have come under fire in the past in some sections of the media for making Christmas too ‘easy’ – and as a result of that, there’s a lot of sensitivity about what privileges inmates should be allowed. In some prisons, small gifts that used to come from the governor have been stopped for fear of adverse publicity – but, in most prisons, the chaplaincies are still able to give very small presents of chocolates or toiletries to each inmate. Parties, too, have mostly been scaled down in the wake of outraged press stories – but most prisons give inmates the chance to play games and maybe watch more television than usual. Then there’s Christmas lunch, which doesn’t always stretch to turkey but often involves chicken and all the trimmings. To a large extent, it’s clear, it’s just a question of helping prisoners make it through the hardest day of the year. ‘There’s a lot of sadness in a prison on Christmas Day,’ says Fr Gowans. ‘You’re always cut off when you’re in jail, but you never feel more cut off than on December 25. It’s a day when you’re in no doubt at all about what it means to be in prison.’