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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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.