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Christmas in custody: How prisoners and their families face the festive season

How do families cope when a relative is behind bars at Christmas?
How do families cope when a relative is behind bars at Christmas?

If there’s one thing Covid has taught us, it’s how upsetting the prospect of being forced to spend Christmas separated from loved ones can be.

But for the families of people in prison, that is the reality, Covid or not.

When offenders are jailed, there is always a knock-on effect for those left behind, and never is it more keenly felt than during the festive season.

So what is Christmas like for prisoners and their families? How do they celebrate? And what can we do to support those affected by imprisonment at Christmas?

‘Everything falls on the one outside’

Being sent to prison is a pivotal moment – not only for the offender, but also for their family.

As Action for Children’s Seada Rodden, team leader at HMP Grampian’s family centre and help hub, explains: “Everything falls on the one who is on the outside. Ultimately it makes [them] the one who is serving a sentence.”

At Christmas, the custody chasm can widen, with families constantly reminded someone is missing, and prisoners struggling with the realisation their crimes mean they can’t join loved ones to celebrate the season.

Thousands of children in Scotland will wake up on Christmas morning without one of their parents because they are in custody.

Laura Van der Hoeven, of Families Outside, a national charity working on behalf of families affected by imprisonment explains: “Thousands of children in Scotland will wake up on Christmas morning without one of their parents because they are in custody.

“Those children often pay a very high price for their parent’s crimes.

“Separated from their parents, the financial and emotional impact of having a family member in prison takes its toll on the whole family.

“This can be particularly hard if it seems like everyone else is having a perfect family Christmas and we know that stress and financial worries often increase over the festive period.”

How do prisoners’ families celebrate Christmas?

However, with the help of a small army of third sector agencies, the continued cooperation of the Scottish Prison Service and determination from all involved, Christmas can still be celebrated by those affected by incarceration.

One of those third sector soldiers is Action for Children’s Sarah Sproul, who works with families impacted by imprisonment in Inverness.

“We work with families throughout the year,” Sarah said. “But Christmas is a bit more sensitive and special so we have our own events outside of the prison that bring people together.

“The people who are affected can all understand what each other is going though, so it is like a little family.”

Mitigating the impact of imprisonment

As well as helping to facilitate family contact through the visitors centre at HMP Inverness and via videolink, Sarah and her team work tirelessly in December to mitigate the impact of having a loved one in prison.

With the help of supermarket Morrisons’ Community Champions initiative and private donors, they distribute Christmas food hampers to families whose plans have been hit by the incarceration of a breadwinner.

They work with local churches to organise carol services and Christmas meals, hold a handmade card exchange for inmates and their families and offer personalised gifting from prison through the Angel Tree initiative. They also nominate recipients for donated gifts from the Giving Tree and Cash for Kids.

The Scottish Prison Service helps facilitate family contact throughout the year, and Christmas events would not be possible without their help, Seada emphasises.

One event her team will host this month at HMP Grampian is an outdoor Christmas visit, where parent prisoners can direct children into the purpose-built hub to collect a donated present from Santa gifted on their behalf.

Prison parents get video visits

Seeing the kids unwrap presents is also a reality for some imprisoned parents as they are given priority for Christmas morning video visits.

And with Covid meaning the introduction of individual mobile phones in prisons, Christmas contact is a far cry from that of the past, when inmates had to queue for a limited number of payphones.

Scottish Prison Service’s Tom Fox said: “A lot of people want to use the phone – that is much easier now because everybody has got a phone.”

However, Mr Fox says even with such developments, Christmas in prison is far from an easy time for inmates.

Rotas for prison staff holidays can mean less freedom for those inside, he explained.

“The actual festive days are very ordinary,” he said. “Days where people spend more time in their cells than they normally would. It is not the kind of special day filled with family and friends that people would want to experience.”

But concessions are made, and inmates can enjoy some festive fare with special menus served up on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and over Hogmanay.

Christmas day menu at HMP Inverness

The prison service also organises activities for inmates, with those at HMP Grampian getting quizzes, pool and a Christmas song competition.

Faith is not forgotten during this Christian holiday. Members of the chaplaincy team also organise services and carol concerts to help mark the festive season.

‘There is a lot of loneliness and isolation’

Aberdeen Catalyst Vineyard pastor Ross Sutherland said: “I think what happens at Christmas is it puts everything under a microscope, the feeling you are separated from loved ones becomes a very real and tangible thing.

“It is especially hard for families with children.  There is a lot of loneliness and isolation.”

But working to combat that feeling of otherness in prisoners is not just the Christian thing to do, he says, it also has the potential to build benefits for the wider community.

“I think that people in prison feel excluded from society because of people’s attitudes and opinions,” Ross says.

“If society changed its thinking about people who have put a foot wrong, people would feel valued and included.

“I don’t think it would be overstating the issue to say it could reduce reoffending if people could see beyond the offences to the person and the difficult circumstances that have led them to where they are.”

His sentiments are echoed by Tom Fox of the SPS, who said: “Maintaining close and successful family links is a key element in people successfully integrating back into society at the end of a prison sentence, and we will do anything we can to help that.”