by Raymond Smith
10 a.m. November 30th 2018 I arrived at Snaresbrook Court for my Sentencing hearing. One month earlier the Judge had said he was looking at probation so I was carrying my briefcase with work meetings booked later on and hoping it would not take too long. Well, he may have looked at probation but he quite clearly didn’t like what he saw because he sent me down for 6 months.
It is a bit of a shock to stand there and have handcuffs slammed on you, your possessions snatched up by the Court Officer then get led to a cell, but perhaps not as shocking for me as for the young man in the cell into which I was placed. “Great” he said when he saw me. “You are the solicitor I requested to get me out of here.” I had to upset him by pointing out I was the man he hadn’t requested who was going to accompany him to Pentonville.
That is why at the beginning of December 2 years ago I found myself waking up facing the first Christmas away from my family in my entire life. No matter where I had been working around the World in previous years I had always got back for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the latter being my birthday. I do not like to miss cakes and the prospect of presents. Now I would miss it all.
My New Life
The first two weeks of my first, and believe me only, stay inside were bizarre. The walls close in, the sound of doors being banged and shouting all night grinds, and you suffer the depression of separation. You just have to accept where you are and get used to it. You ain’t going to change it! Being put very quickly into the Education department’s journalism class gave some relief and during the next couple of weeks things lightened up. I was sent by Journalism to cover an awards ceremony in the Prison Library where Certificates from a Criminology degree course were being handed out and was impressed by the work of the overall education team. I then got pushed (not that I needed much pushing) into entering a silly verse in the Prison’s Annual Poetry and Rap Grand Slam.
That was quite some afternoon. The 12 people who had entered read out their work to a packed Library full of their fellows and whereas outside I have always found cynicism from people watching those they know, in Pentonville the support was total. And the writing was quality; harsh, heart-warming and moving. A wonderful time and the day when I saw some light in my prison stay. But then I made a big mistake, and anyone thinking of going to prison (and please don’t) remember this tale of woe. I phoned home on the way back to the cell after the Poetry Slam finished.
Honestly, I Am Miserable
My partner answered. Each time I had phoned I had been downcast, given it was another day ticked off nearer to leaving, another day without my family that I was surviving, Not this one. “I have just had the best afternoon” I enthused. “The poetry and the music, it was funny and clever and moving. Great refreshments.” Silence followed, then I heard a rather loud shouty voice.
“You are not in there to have a bloody good time.” She did not seem over impressed. “I am stuck here and you are entertaining yourself.” Oh I never made that mistake again.
But then a week before Christmas the classes stopped for two weeks and the routine became dull. A choir was brought in to sing Carols and were parked in the Hub at which all the wings met which meant that in the cells you could hear the occasional note or word but most of it was lost floating around the wings themselves. A nice thought I guess, and perhaps it is the thought that counts.
Ho Ho Ho
My cell mate, even older than me and who had been inside for many years on and off, had a visit from the Chaplain as he was due to leave at any time and was asked if his accommodation had been sorted and when he replied it had not was promised that St Mungo’s would come and see him. Every day I told him to press the officers as no one had been, but he was sure they would arrive. They didn’t and on Christmas Eve while I was out on Association he was collected and let out, to no address at all. Released to homelessness at Christmas. I still wonder what happened to him and fear he ended up back inside somewhere. Another guy moved in ten minutes after he had left.
Christmas Day arrived, like any other but with less time for Association due to staff shortages, and with the promise of Christmas Pudding and Custard. I confess to loving custard and this would be the first, and indeed, though I didn’t know at the time, the last time I would see it in prison. In fact I did see it but not taste it because it ran out three men in front of me in the lunch queue. I ended up with a slice of pudding so hard I think it was hewn from the Pentonville Walls and a grudge that has stayed with me ever since and is probably more enjoyable for me than the custard would have been.
The Prison dropped in a Christmas Present of socks and soap, Christmas was over, then back to tedium day after day with no classes, limited time out of cells, and repeats of repeats on TV. Still my new cell mate had access to some interesting tobacco and so I was enjoying passive “getting stoned” to help pass the time.
Put It Into Context
On December 28th I bumped into one of the female officers on the wing, a pleasant and professional person, who had not been around for a few days. “Been off with the family?” I asked. “No. I have been in A wing on suicide watch for 5 days.” How awful is that. How depressing a thought. Put everything in context.
So there you have it. Some great social events and activities, 9 days of mundane tedium, the promise then loss of a culinary treat, men released probably to homelessness and uncertain futures in the centre of London in the heart of winter, and the tragedy of those self-harming or trying to end their own lives inside.
What do I think of Christmas in prison? The good, the bad, and the unimaginably tragic.
A good Christmas and all best wishes for 2021 to all those in prison, their families and to all those who care for justice and fairness today.