Neil Campbell has been a Chaplain in the Scottish Prison Service since 1996. He’s based at HMP Dumfries but has also worked at HMP Penninghame and HMP Greenock.
No Room At The Inn.
by Neil Campbell.
I don’t look forward to Christmas which is ironic because Christmas is a bit of an occupational hazard for a prison chaplain. I have been a Scottish Prison Service chaplain for a long time and I have witnessed, observed, experienced twenty five prison Christmases.
It is, as everyone delights in telling me, my busy time, but not because of endless carol services and seasonal events. It is busy because Christmas exaggerates and magnifies both the the good and the bad. If someone is going through a bad time, then Christmas makes it worse. Prison, I think, does that too so Christmas in prison can be doubly difficult for a lot of people. There is an increase in referrals to the Chaplaincy Team. There is also a need to keep an eye on those who retreat into themselves and their cells at Christmas.
I shouldn’t be writing any of this because I have never experienced what it is like to be on the wrong side of a locked door. I walk the same corridors but I do it with a set of keys. I do it when I choose and at my own speed and I do not underestimate the difference and I don’t pretend to be able to talk with any real knowledge of what Christmas is like in prison.
I know what it looks like and sounds like but I don’t know what it feels like. Christmas decorations, carols, that kind of thing, make the place look Christmassy but Christmassy is only good if that matches your mood and prisons are full of people – staff included – who hide behind masks of bravado and indifference.
I have tended always to be around on Christmas Day. When I watch people eat their Christmas meal, there are those for whom it is a disappointment and a reminder of what they would be enjoying if they were outside. For others it is the best Christmas meal they have ever had or do ever have. I have spoken to people who tell me they have never in their lives been given a Christmas present. You can’t just come home after that and eat and behave and celebrate as if everything is normal. You can’t shut it out of your head.
As a baby I was in foster care and then a children’s home – I have all of the papers – and eventually a couple who couldn’t have children of their own adopted me. They were older than the average set of new parents. They are dead now but my entire life was shaped and moulded and changed completely by the kindness of these strangers. There isn’t a day in which I don’t think about that. There isn’t a day in which I am not grateful for it and for what they did.
If Christmas, in prison, is characterised by one thing more than any other, then it is the kindness of strangers. Often it will be staff, more frequently it will be other prisoners, but you will see extraordinary generosity, patience, insight, friendship, humanity. In the magnification and exaggeration Christmas brings to everything, you see it more clearly now than at any other time.
Someone who does know what it is to be locked up recognises more quickly and much earlier the signs of loneliness and isolation in someone else who is locked up. There is no minister, priest, chaplain, governor, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or prison officer who could not learn from prisoners. The good ones do. In the hands of a prisoner, a cup of coffee or half a biscuit can be a sacrament of hope, light in the darkness.
Those who find themselves in prison at Christmas through no choice of their own do Christmas much better than the churches. Not out of badness but just because they don’t get it, congregations sing and hear about Mary and Joseph and Jesus who were left outside and then shut the doors until it is convenient to worship again.
They speak about putting Christ back into Christmas. Christ doesn’t belong in Christmas or churches. That is the whole point of there having been no room in the inn. The question I am asked most often by staff and prisoners is about proving that God exists. I can’t. But if you ask me where I think God is, then I will point you to the kindness which turns strangers into friends and friends into family. That is redemption and rehabilitation. And I have seen that again and again and again over the last quarter of a century and every Christmas in each of the prisons in which I have worked.