(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy)
This year has not been a great one to be an inmate in a UK jail, with murder, suicide and increasing concern over prisoner welfare all making the headlines pretty frequently over the last 12 months. This doesn't bode especially well for Christmas on the wings, a time where an already fraught atmosphere can often be pushed to breaking point.
I teach at a prison, and spoke to some of the prisoners in my class about how they were feeling about spending the impending festive season behind bars.
MERRY FUCKING CHRISTMAS
Leon, 35, is in the last few months of a six-year sentence for selling coke to students at his local uni. His hopes of making it out on license in time for Christmas were dashed when he was sent back from an open prison for missing a weekend curfew by an hour.
"I'm used to it now, missing birthdays, Christmas, all of that shit," Leon says. I ask if he can confirm my theory that the atmosphere inside is worse during Christmas than at any other time of the year. "Yeah, deffo," he says. "And it's got worse since I started my stretch. It used to be that we'd get a bit of Christmas dinner, extra association [communal social time outside of the cell], screws would turn a blind eye to a bit of this, bit of that." It's not like that any more then? "Nah. Last year I was down the block on my Jack Jones for having a bottle of hooch in my cell. Wasn't even mine. Merry fucking Christmas. Basically, they've tried to make [Christmas] like any other day now, but they must be tapped if they think we're not going to know what day it is just because they don't plate us some turkey and roasties. Thank fuck I'm out of here soon. I'll do my Christmas in bed, watching whatever shit film is on ITV2."
I'm well aware that some prison officers can be massive jobsworths – or even pretty vindictive at times – but I ask Leon if he has any good Christmas experiences from the past six years. "Yeah, there was an old fella – hard as fucking nails, mind – but he brought in a load of takeaway one Christmas Eve, heated it up in the microwave and came round mine and a few other lads' cells who'd helped him out on the wing organising the lads, keeping an eye on things. Never in my life have I eaten a better curry. Made sense… we helped him, he returned the favour. Governors gave him redundancy because he earned too much. Can't blame him for taking it. All the governors want now is thick roider cunts, wannabe bouncers, that they can pay shit wages. Best of luck with that…"
Leon's favourite Christmas movie: Gremlins
THE PARTY-TO-PRISON CYCLE
Russell, 25, is due to be released on the 3rd of January. Despite never having served a sentence in excess of 14 weeks, it will be the fifth consecutive Christmas he has experienced inside. Russell isn't the first prisoner I've met who seems to have spent plenty of Christmases inside. I ask him how and why he thinks this is happening.
"Start off by getting released early in the year. It's cold and no one is partying, so it's easy to keep my nose clean. I'll be round me mam's every night for tea, then a few cans and a smoke before bed. Into March and I'll pick up a bit of work labouring, buy a Playstation, go to the gym few nights a week. Still no partying – everyone's saving or paying off their holiday credit card. Around Easter you might get the odd nice weekend, bit of sun. That's when it all goes to shit for me. Too much flake, too much cider… guarantee I'm looking at a charge some time in the next couple of months, and bang up by October, November."
I ask Russell if this is worth it. Wouldn't he rather keep a lower profile, do less coke and drink fewer snakebites, and actually get to spend Christmas at home? "It's never bothered me before. Getting a bit sick of it now, like." Having spoken to Russell previously, I know how close he is to his mother; I ask him if he thinks his annual absence is a problem for her. "She'll get a bit upset on the phone, but I'm one of six and there's fuck knows how many grandkids now, so I think she just gets on with it. Probably happy to have one less mouth to feed."
I don't buy Russell's bravado and am not surprised when he later tells me that the reason he wants to make this his last Christmas inside is that his girlfriend is now expecting their first child together. "See, when it was just me and the missus, that's one thing… but there's no way I'm missing me kid opening his presents, getting excited, all that Christmas shit. Time to grow up."
Russell's favourite Christmas movie: Elf
AN EASY CHOICE
I've know Gaz, 36, for quite some time. Like Russell, he's seemingly stuck in the habitual banged up at Christmas cycle; but while Russell has an endlessly patient and supportive family outside, Gaz has been homeless for nearly 20 years, with only intermittent contact with his sister.
I know that Gaz has worked with community outreach programmes in the past, so I ask him if he can shed some light on why he seems to return to prison every Christmas. "Because it gets fucking cold in December," he says. "I need to stay off the gear, so I avoid hostels and shelters where possible. It's alright most of the year – you get used to it, get to learn where to sleep, how to sleep safely outdoors. But come November, December you can't have it. Too brutal."
Gaz continues to explain that deliberately getting arrested, knowing full well he'll do a relatively short custodial sentence, is his safest bet to see out the winter months. "Walking out of Tesco with a 50-inch TV, slapping a traffic warden, trying to nick a bike outside a police station. I've done it all, mate," Gaz laughs. The outcome? "A couple of months of warm water, a mattress to kip on, hot food, catch up on the soaps…"
I ask Gaz about the rising violence and welfare concerns in prison, and whether this might make him rethink his winter strategy. "Bitter screws and some kids on spice tearing up the wing versus freezing to death on the street? Easy choice, mate, easy choice."
Gaz's favourite Christmas movie: Scrooged
Top image by Dave Herholz
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