CHRISTMAS. Once you have worked in any institution for a period of time you get a sense of when something is about to happen, the air takes on a tangible feel. In jail you can sense it at the main gate, and it grows as you walk down to the compound. The raw emotions of people locked away and unable to do anything about it. Whether it’s a change in policy, rationing of food, tobacco, or somebody has been knocked back on a visit and is deciding to make everybody’s life miserable. The feeling runs through the close-knit community and it behaves like a virus, infecting whoever it touches. It is all about structure, a prisoner’s day runs to a tight schedule, from when they wake in the morning until lights out at night. If they are serving a lengthy sentence then their routine is everything. Disruptions can occur over how many slices of bread they are allowed to the amount of letters they can write. When your life, your every movement is controlled then a small change is huge. On an individual level family events like anniversary’s and birthdays make prisoners quite sullen.
In the week leading up to Christmas day the tensions grow, men who were normally well-behaved throughout the year became testy and unpredictable. You would think it was about being away from their loved ones, families and children. No way, the vast majority missed the drinking and partying with their friends. It opened my eyes to the human condition in regards to selfishness. Many of them had young families, who because of them being in jail were doing it tough on the outside. Barely scraping by on social security, these wives and children would visit on a regular basis. A railway station was situated about a mile and a half away. You would see these women, many pushing a pram with a couple of kids toddling along behind them making the trip up to the jail. Not far but in summer it made life difficult for the children. I saw the young and the elderly on weekends trudging along the road, rain or shine. We weren’t allowed to give them a lift, you could imagine how the prisoners would react if you gave their wife a ride?
There were no regular visits on weekdays and definitely none on Christmas day. So the weekend visits before the big day were usually something of an eye-opener. On any visit you had to keep your ears open without looking like you were listening. Many conversations went like this:
Him, ‘Did you put money in my account, I need tobacco?’ Her, ‘I only have enough to get the train home and I bought a return ticket.’ Him, ‘Expletive’s deleted, why didn’t you leave the kids at home and walk you, *&^%$?’ Her, crying, the kids confused and crying, ‘I had to get something for the kids. My Mum can’t help and yours doesn’t want to know me.” You get the drift, if it’s not money it’s, coffee, biscuits, socks and underwear, toiletries. It’s all about them. I witnessed many sad visits because of a prisoner’s selfishness.
Every morning inside starts the same way: 6 a.m. the wake up siren blares out, like a klaxon on steroids guaranteed to wake the dead. The officers change over from night to day shift and after the various posts have been allocated drag themselves down the walkway to the compound. Those with a wing to look after go straight to it and make sure the prisoners are out of bed. 6.30 a.m. a quick blare of the siren and unlocking begins. Out with the keys and away you go, for two landings you had six keys which opened a certain amount of cells before you changed over. The prisoner had to be standing at his door with whatever he needed for the day in his hands, door open he steps out stands to one side, you lock the door and move on. On the odd occasion one would come out fighting. Everybody out, you would march them down to the compound where they’d line up in three ranks. The roll would be called, and then they would march upstairs to the mess hall.
An officer would stand in the entryway and make sure each prisoner took only one knife, fork and spoon. Once they were served their meal they would go to their allocated table and eat. One officer would then stay in the mess hall and circulate. The others would have gone to have their breakfast. Meal over you checked that each prisoner deposited his cutlery in a tray and they went downstairs. Each side of the jail held about 130 prisoners, so you would have the responsibility of keeping an eye on their movements, along with the officer in charge of the vestibule. The wait for your breakfast break seemed endless. In that time you were inundated with requests for letters, extra visits, I can’t go to work today, can I go back to my cell, I want, I forgot, I need……you get the picture.
The difference with Christmas morning was only the essential dairy, piggery and bakehouse workers attended to their jobs. For the rest it was clean the compound and then the day’s activities began. The bakers had been up since 2 a.m. to make the pies and cakes for the prison and cook the hams. The smells that wafted down to the cells were divine. Officers could bring their own cakes and hams in to be cooked in the bread ovens and take them home at end of shift. Once the herd was milked, the cows put back out and the pigs fed, the workers returned to the compound.
They didn’t have a shortage of activities inside the compound, there were no sports field activities due to the odd festive season escape over the back fence. Inside the space between the cell blocks had been turned into lawn bowls greens. For those who didn’t bowl they could set up a badminton net or volleyball. The less athletic could confine themselves to the recreation room and play cards (no gambling though) darts; engage in chess competitions, the library would be open. There were quite a few good musicians when I was there and the outdoor theatre would be open for them. They’d be up on stage having jamming sessions.
Lunch was the main attraction and I have to say some of the finest Christmas meals I’ve had were in jail. The quality of the cooking on these occasions was excellent; it seemed that the cooks went out of their way to make it special. Also having the industrial sized ovens and stoves went a long way. I will argue this one up and down the land, you haven’t had a Christmas pudding and custard until you’ve had one inside. The Trade Instructor, Tom usually supervised this and always excelled himself. The lunch menu went like this: Turkey, ham and chicken, salad, vegetables, bread rolls, fruit, pudding, custard, ice cream, lollies (candy). Dinner consisted of leftover meat and salad. As I walked around the mess hall it was interesting to see how they reacted to their meal. The old lags who had been doing time on and off for years tucked in and looked for leftovers. Most of the others ate like it was any other day, and then there were the complainers. ‘This is shit food Boss, can’t they do a decent Christmas dinner?’ They were the ungrateful mob whose families were doing it tough on the outside, the ones who whined when their wives couldn’t bring them money. Yet they had no thought for their children and here they were, feasting like kings while their children were probably eating cereal.
It galled me to think of what their children were going through. I come from a background of poverty, my father due to his war service was incapable of keeping a job. We lived from hand to mouth and at times my mother starved herself so we could eat. They wouldn’t accept handouts. Baked Beans on toast for a main meal, porridge for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch was the norm for a long time. There were times where we had a little more than usual and were happy for it. He went to sea in the Merchant Marine in the late fifties, this made life a little easier although it was a long time in between paydays. There were Christmases that exceeded my expectations and they are cherished. To hear these men complain made me sick.
SOLITARY. I remember reading through some of the old prison manuals and seeing the daily ration for a prisoner right up until after WW2. Bread, half a loaf a day: Meat, varied half a pound, vegetables, rolled oats, (lots) tea and sugar, so many ounces and half a pint of milk. It may not have been the good old days but if they had a choice between that and what they were sitting down to, they may have thought differently. On the subject of diet, a prisoner could still be sentenced to seven days solitary on bread and water. This could only done by a Magistrate hearing the charge. The prisoner had one days break in the seven where he had three normal meals. One particular nasty piece of work had assaulted an officer and went before the Magistrate. The look on his face was priceless when the gavel came down, “Seven days, bread and water.” We led him straight to what we called the ‘Pound,’ a set of cells, looking for all the world like dog kennels set behind the cell blocks.
Six cells each with its own caged exercise area, the cell contained a toilet, sink, board bed and the yard had a cold water shower. He was put in his new home and searched, his tobacco, matches, belt and laces were taken. There was a pillow, blanket some toilet paper, a plastic cup and a bible. Still cocky and spoiling for a fight it gave me great delight to bring his first meal out, yes a loaf of unsliced bread. They had a choice, white or brown. Day four he wolfed everything down at each meal then back to bread and water for the next two days. Something resembling a changed man came out of the pound, gone the cocky, arrogant ‘I can do what I want’ type replaced by a quiet, pensive individual. Perhaps he had a look into himself and saw something he didn’t like. Or maybe the solitude scared him, sometimes there’s no greater enemy than yourself.
I’d like to finish off with a ‘Merry Christmas to all my readers’ and to thank you for passing by and visiting me. It gives me great pleasure to know that you find my writings interesting enough to keep coming back. I wish you all a Happy New year and hope that life treats you well.