By Kelly Breakspear
My most recent experience of Christmas in jail was in 2018 when my best friend was serving in HMP Lewes. Before I talk about that, I’ll give you a bit of the background to our friendship. It’s quite an unusual story.
A few years ago, whilst reading the letters page of Inside Time, an article on personality disorders caught my eye. Reading it was a revelation, somebody was expressing my thoughts and opinions and so articulately. I needed to find out more on the author. It turned out to be Sarah-Jane Baker, serving a discretionary life sentence and the longest serving transgender prisoner in the whole wide world!
At that point, Sarah had spent 29 years behind bars and was being held in the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit of HMP Lewes, a male prison. How’s that for interesting? It’s easy to see why I wanted to know more.
So, off I went and clicked on the link to her book:
I devoured every page within a matter of hours. Absolutely inspiring and fascinating. A story of strength, endurance and resilience AND she has been diagnosed with the living hell of Borderline Personality Disorder, just like me, and still the most musically and artistically talented person I have ever met.
I could see so many similarities in our personalities and I really wanted to make contact with Sarah. But my mental health was the worst it had ever been, I hadn’t left the house or engaged with anyone for more than two years and I was battling severe social anxiety. But here I was contemplating whether to make contact with a violent “Tranny” lifer on the numbers in a male jail!! At that time I didn’t know “Tranny” was offensive. Yes, I really was pig ignorant about the ‘whole transgender thing’. Actually, until I met Sarah, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought and I had no idea how offensive some of my nicknames for trans women actually were.
After three glasses of red I’d logged in to Email-a-Prisoner and sent her a slurred e-mail proclaiming my admiration for her. I didn’t give it another thought after that, I didn’t expect a reply. I didn’t much care if she didn’t reply, I just wanted to share my thoughts.
When I received her letter, a week or so later, it was exactly the same again. I was reading my thoughts and opinions written by another hand. Within two weeks we were writing or emailing each other every day. A few weeks later Sarah, sensitive to my social anxiety, asked if I was ready for a phone call. I was desperate to talk to her, we had so much more in common than the same mental diagnoses of BPD and a number of co-morbid disorders; there’s only six months between us, so we grew up in the same era with similar childhoods and we were both middle-aged, menopausal women.
I’ll be frank, as much as I couldn’t wait to talk to her, I was also terrified that she would have a voice like ‘Trevor the Trucker’. I didn’t want the woman, who was becoming my best friend, to be a “mess in a dress”.
When I answered her call, I honestly thought a female screw was putting her call through to me but Sarah’s voice is more girly than mine. After that, Sarah would phone me three or four times a day, every day and we’d chat about everything and nothing until we heard the beeps. Soon after, she wrote to me and told me to “hitch up my petticoats and book a visit”.
I was terrified and excited about the visit. I’d been on enough visits before and being in a prison environment held no fear. I was scared and nervous about leaving the house for the first time and terrified that I would walk into the visits hall and my best friend would be six feet tall, with hands like shovels and a five o’clock shadow.
She really, really wasn’t. She was my lovely lady best friend, exactly the same as the lady I knew on the phone. We’re the same height, same shoe size and her dinky little hands make mine look like shovels. She used to delight in telling screws, cons and visitors “She’s more man than I’ll ever be” and that I was her transgender sister. I was even told a couple of times “You don’t look like one. I wouldn’t have known. Can’t tell at all.” Some of them believed her and didn’t know what the hell to say to me or where to look! I would just reply in my deepest Trevor the Trucker voice “Alright Fella.”
After that first visit, I continued to visit every week, unless Sarah had other visitors. It was just like meeting a friend for a coffee, we didn’t stop cackling and laughing for the whole ninety minute visits.
I could fill three books with anecdotes about our friendship. But I’m meant to be talking about my experience of having a Christmas in jail. So I’ll get back to it now …
I worried about Sarah and how awful Christmas would be and wanted to make it all better for her. I didn’t have anything to worry about, it was hardly her first Christmas behind the door, she’d got it down. Ironically, she was more concerned with reassuring me and making sure I was going to be happy at Christmas.
During the last few weeks leading up to Christmas, every time we spoke on the phone, she would tell me about all the things she was doing for others. Making paper chains and snow flakes to decorate pads and landings, making personalised Christmas embroideries, saving the Penguin biscuits from her tea packs, ordering gifts on her canteen. Every single day she was doing something different to show love and compassion to others on the numbers.
How could she even contemplate showing love and compassion to them?
I’d always wrongly assumed that VPs (Vulnerable Prisoners) were all scummy pedophiles and rapists. There are many who should be castrated, but there are also other men who are wheelchair bound and on the numbers for no other reason than disabled facilities are not available elsewhere. Grasses and bad debtors hide on the numbers. There are petrified young men, under the age of twenty five. An ever increasing number of men are over seventy and have been convicted for historical sex offences, often with no evidence of guilt, and in some cases absolutely no memory of the alleged event. In recent years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of men falsely accused of sexual offences. Before you say “Bullsh!t, nonces always say they’re innocent.” Sarah, like any long-term prisoner, can recognise an innocent man as quickly as she can spot a wrong ‘un.
There are men who have asked for protection and segregation from the general population. Sarah was also there for her own protection, if you read her book she describes some of her most horrific attacks – scalded by sugar and boiling water, raped, repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten to a pulp on a number of occasions when she was in the general population. More than once, on a visit, I had to watch her wipe her hair and clothes to remove the saliva of the men on the landings who spat at her as she walked past. I’m not trying to campaign, garner sympathy or try to shut up the Window Warriors. I’m just outlining Sarah’s situation so you don’t make the same incorrect assumptions that I had made about the residents of the VPU.
Back to the story of Christmas.
I had managed to book a visit for Christmas Eve and it was the day that we looked forward to more than any other. Our Christmas Day was the visit. In some ways it made it easier for both of us to take our attention away from the dreaded 25th.
The prison staff at HMP Lewes and Sussex Prisoner Families had put up Christmas decorations in the visits area and the children’s area. One of the locked gates I passed on the way had red tinsel tied around the bars. I had mixed feelings about it, on the one hand it was great to see staff doing their bit, but it was somehow sad with a sense of despair and irony.
The Christmas Eve visit worked out really well for us and we even exchanged presents in the visits hall. In my rush to leave I left my brand new coat behind and put on Sarah’s coat. What a silly lady I am! You’d be amazed at the stuff I’ve left behind on a visit!!
It was such a lovely day for us both that Christmas Day really didn’t matter. We had planned our Christmas TV viewing schedule weeks before. I spent Christmas Day at home on my own to make sure I was there when she called and we watched Christmas TV ‘together’ throughout the day. I’d already booked a visit for the 28th and we were both looking forward to that so Christmas Day was just another day in-between visits.
Every Christmas Sarah was invited by the Chaplain to perform at the Christmas Day service. She’s a ridiculously talented Classical Violinist, incredible guitarist and can hold a tune. The songs she performed each year were not just Christmas carols, she would often perform the most poignant songs about missing home and loved ones.
This particular year, she had chosen to sing and play guitar to Neil Diamond’s Feels Like Home. I was absolutely honoured to hear her rehearsals over the phone. Spine tingling!
You don’t actually have to listen to the song, because the lyrics alone will bring a tear to your eye.
If you knew how lonely my life has been
And how low I’ve felt for so long
If you knew how I wanted someone to come along
And change my life the way you’ve done
Feels like home to me
Feels like home to me
Feels like I’m all the way back where I come from
Feels like home to me
Feels like home to me
Feels like I’m all the way back where I belong
Sure enough Sarah had a great time, she’s a very talented performer and there wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel. She was even rewarded with a proper size Milky Way and not a tiny one from a tub of Celebrations.
Actually, one of our favourite Christmas games was Sarah holding a Celebration up to the phone, rustling it and I would have to guess which one it was! I guessed correctly every single time – what are the odds? Almost as exciting as “Guess the joke on the Penguin wrapper!” and “Am I eating the right leg or the left leg of a chicken?”
It was our childish laughing, cackling and giggling that made Christmas easier for us both. It’s such a tough time and there is no right or wrong way of dealing with or getting through it. It’s whatever works for you to just get Christmas out of the way.
I’m delighted to say that Sarah was finally released on October 2019. If you would like to hear Sarah tell her story, she really spills the beans in this interview.
Coincidentally, Shaun Atwood is one of my guest bloggers – coming soon!
Here endeth my Christmas story and there are still ten more to come from some proper, proper guests.
Before you know it, it’ll be Boxing Day and we’re back to that lockdown sh!t!