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Stuck inside for Christmas

19 December 2014

Tim Wyatt finds out what it's like for prisoners and chaplains to spend Christmas in prison


EVERYBODY wants to be home for Christmas; but not everybody can. There are almost 86,000 people in prisons and young-offender institutions who are facing up to the reality of a Christmas behind bars. I wanted to find out what the festive season was like on the inside. Can inmates "repeat the sounding joy" while incarcerated, or does prison suffocate the Christmas spirit?

The chaplain at Brixton prison since 2007, the Revd Phil Chadder, tells me that, inevitably, the heavy doors and high walls of his prison keep out much of the Christmas cheer. "I would describe the atmosphere as subdued," he says. "It's not a day that people feel like celebrating. It is almost one they want to get through, and back into the normal routine."

This atmosphere seems to affect staff as much as inmates, Mr Chadder thinks. "Everybody knows that everybody, staff and prisoners, would rather be somewhere else."

A similar sentiment is experienced a little under 100 miles away, at HM Prison Long Lartin, in Worcestershire. Its chaplain, the Revd Kevin Downham, says that Christmas can be a particularly difficult time.

"It is a challenging time, sometimes, for prisoners. It says: 'You're here, and your family is somewhere else.' Some prisoners shut it out - it is just another day. That is the way they can cope with it."

The curious emptiness described by Mr Chadder leads some prisoners to contemplate their position in a way that is not normal during the regular routine. "They get very reflective. They remember where they were in past times," he says.

"The staff will make every effort to make themselves available to support prisoners; but, in my experience, everybody's thoughts are elsewhere."

In contrast, Mr Downham says that, at his prison, a mostly Category A institution for those who have committed serious crimes, the staff have little time for contemplation as their attention is on the emotional state of the inmates.

"It very much runs as a normal prison day, [but] it is a busy time for us, because those prisoners who are feeling vulnerable take a lot more of our time." He says that, no matter what the time of year, the reality of being behind bars is inescapable.

"At the end of the day, they are still in prison. It is that sense of separation."

BUT it is not completely gloomy. Efforts are made to bring Christmas into prisons, the chaplains say. "It does feel different [during the Christmas season]," Mr Chadder says. "Each wing will have a Christmas tree, and a competition to decorate it the best."

The climax of the festive season, he says, comes not on Christmas Day, but at a special carol service earlier in the week. "We have a big celebration, and the chapel is absolutely packed. We are celebrating the meaning of the festival, but it is far enough away to not get a 'hunker down and get through it' mentality."

At the carol service at Brixton prison, a prisoner gives his testimony of how he came to faith. The entire service is recorded, and then broadcast to prisons throughout the UK on Christmas morning.

Mr Downham said that Long Lartin's carol service was also enormously popular, and always featured guests from outside the prison. Tinsel was not entirely absent, either, and there were decorations and a tree in both the chaplaincy office and the chapel.

Nor do the prison authorities ignore the fact that Christmas is happening outside the prison walls. A "family day" is always arranged for late December, to act as a surrogate Christmas Day. Partners and children of inmates can spend a day visiting.

"One of the things that [the prisoners] really miss is being around to open their presents with their children," Mr Downham says. "We are really blessed here, in that members of the local church communities donate gifts, which are wrapped, and then Father Christmas comes to the family visits and gives each child a present.

"For that moment, that can be their Christmas Day, and the dad gets to see the present. It is very special."

THE Christian charity Prison Fellowship also runs a popular scheme where prisoners can apply to have a small gift sent to their children for Christmas Day, with a personal message from them. "When they phone home, their child is opening a present from them," Mr Chadder says. "It is very important that they can make that contribution themselves."

These encounters are not just a charitable attempt to bring festive cheer into prisons, but also a way to ensure that prisoners are ultimately ready to return to society. "Maintaining family ties is one of the key determinants of whether they will reoffend," Mr Chadder says.

"We do what we can to help maintain that family unit," Mr Downham says. "The aim, as always, is to reduce reoffending."

For whatever reason, spending time with family members at Christmas is very popular with prisoners. And it is not just family: any visitors from the outside can lift the spirits of inmates.

For many decades, it has been traditional for bishops to visit prisons on Christmas Day, and attend their chapel services. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, spoke some years ago of the "privilege" he had had, when Archbishop of Birmingham, of visiting prisons at Christmas.

He said that the tradition had begun when Pope John XXIII went to a prison in Rome in 1958, telling the prisoners: "You could not come to me; so I came to you." The practice is now widespread among Anglican bishops as well.

"To have the privilege of celebrating mass with prisoners is truly a wonderful occasion, but it is, as you can imagine, also very emotional," the then Archbishop Nichols said. "We sing carols - not very well, but always with great gusto. We remind them that the prison walls cannot keep out God's love.

"They go back to their cells tearful yet cheerful, and to their Christmas lunch, and I go away for mine."

Mr Chadder says that at least one bishop from the diocese of Southwark always attends to celebrate holy communion. "I think the prisoners really appreciate that, . . . to have a bishop [visit]. It is an important gesture."

Mr Downham agrees: "They expect the chaplain to be there, [but] they really do value the fact that people from the local community give up their time willingly to come in and be there."

IT IS also a reminder that the men inside are not forgotten by the Church, Mr Chadder says. "That is a really important symbol, I think, that the wider Christian community has not washed its hands of these men."

So, does this and the rest of the Christian message of Christmas still get through to the prisoners? Mr Downham has no doubts: "The reality of what we are celebrating at Christmas is very visible to them. It does encourage them to ask questions. It really endorses their faith." Furthermore, he says, the believers among his incarcerated flock find solace in their faith, which enables them to cope with the strain of being behind bars over Christmas.

But, Mr Chadder says, he doesn't think that he has more conversations about Jesus just because carols are in the air: "The wonderful thing about prison chaplaincy is that those conversations happen all the time. I don't think there is a spike at Christmas. Through the year, the big questions are always being raised."

On occasion, however, the spiritual input does come from a Christmassy, if unusual, source. One year, Mr Chadder found himself chatting to an inmate at about 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, when he heard the National Anthem on the television.

Watching the Queen deliver her Christmas address together was intensely moving, he says. "It was the one when she quoted the last verse from 'In the bleak midwinter'. She was reinforcing everything I had been working on with this man, over the months."

It seems that Christmas can, and almost always will, filter through into the bleakest of surroundings.

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