A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS. Part 7. Christmas on the inside and a little touch of Solitary.

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.


11 thoughts on “A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS. Part 7. Christmas on the inside and a little touch of Solitary.

  1. Raani York

    Hi Laurie… not the Christmas story one would think of at first when starting to read. But it’s written as well as your blog posts always are and just the way I love them! Merry Christmas to you as well!!


  2. patgarcia

    Hello my dear Brother,

    Reading your articles have helped me reconcile some of the incidences I saw while working in a state institution. It has also helped me come to terms with things I have seen in prisons all of the years that I have been going in and out of them, singing and bringing a little bit of cheer where I can.

    One thing you mentiobned is so true. Prisoners hate a disturbance in their schedules. The routine must be kept or they began to flip out. As I began singing in prisons, one of the social workers told me that one thing they did not want me to do was say I was coming and not show up. They let me know that the disappointment experienced by the inmates would bring about horrible consequences for them, because they would do things that they would not normally do.

    So I made an extra effort to be there and on time. I will say here that my concerts in prison are always given as a substitute for the church services offered, and therefore my concerts reach out to all of the prisoners who would like to attend. But the times are horrendous for me. The church services usually start at 8 AM and when you live four or five hours away, like my pianist and myself, that means getting up at 1 or 2 AM and leaving your home by 3 AM so you can be at a prison by 7:30 AM with your own sound equipment and everything you may need to give a good sound!

    Even nicer is that here in Germany all of the chapels seem to be at the very top, which means lugging all of your sound equipment up 5 or 6 flights of stairs. I can go on and on about this, but the joy comes when a few of the men that show up wipe a tear away from their eyes. That is when I see that what I do is okay. That is my reward, because my pianist and I do these concerts without pay. Many of the prisoners sit there with stone faces, no smiles and this you owe me mentality, but there are a few that cannot hold back the tears and for those few I sing in my heart out and know that that is the reason why I do what I do when I go there and sing.

    It is amazing for me that no matter what prison it is, regardless of what part of the world the prison is, the same excuses are given for their misery and the most of them think only of themselves. They all have all same excuse, regardless of nationality, creed, or race, and that is that everyone else is at fault. However, there are a few who wake up and change. They really began to understand that they are responsible for their decisions, but it is too few who discover this.

    Finally, let me say here how enriching reading your blog has been for me, and I look forward to your articles in the future. I have enjoyed getting to know you. Your blog has opened doors for me to meet two fine people in you and your wife. Your experiences and how you are mastering your own life has given me courage to keep walking the road I have chosen for my life. And your honesty and integrity has made me proud to call you brother.

    So I wish you and Lorelle a beautiful Christmas and a wonderful walk over in the New Year.

    Take care of yourself.
    I love you, Bro.



    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hey Sis, good to hear from you. I’m happy to have helped you reconcile with your experiences and the one word that describes them in their situation is, selfish. This is where your faith comes out, you go and bless them all with your music. It sounds like a hectic schedule and a lot of travelling for you. As you say you take enjoyment from it when it reaches out to someone. It would be nice if they let a couple of trustees lug your sound system for you though.
      It’s only a very few that wake up Sis, I used to ask them what put them in jail, the same answer, the police. Not their crime or behaviour.
      Thank you so much for your kind words Sis, I appreciate it that you like my blog and what I have to say. More importantly that it has brought Lorelle and me into your life. Thank you.
      So a happy and holy Christmas for you and yours and an even happier New year.
      Love from your Bro.


  3. Patricia Salamone (@Pattisalamone)

    It is funny how your stories create different emotions in me Laurie. I wonder why the women even visited. If the prisioners were so selfish and cruel why bother. Why would they waste money on train tickets, they could be using for themselves and their children. I would let him rot. I imagine that sort of behaviour goes on even outside the prison walls. Women who stay in a dangerous relationship, putting her children in danger as well. Women who stay knowing their children are being abused. I do not think I will ever understand why. They should have brought a bag full of s–t and plopped it down in front of him saying ” here I saved this and and the children and I want to share what you have left for us to live on,” smiled and then left, never to return. This is just my opinion, I am not here to judge, I will never understand, maybe I am to dense. With that being said, and my opinion being given, the most important thing I have to say is,” have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” I look forward to your next post.:o)
    Have you read my Christmas Memories? If not do visit at: http://www.simplesite.com/Patricia-Salamone. :o)


    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Patricia, Glad to be of service, I love it when someone says I’ve stirred their emotions in some way. I think they visit for many reasons, a sense of loyalty, however much it is misplaced. Love??? No self respect. Not all women are feisty and strong like you Sorella. You would probably give them a great deal of sharp tongue, comment loudly on their inabilities as men, give them the occhio diabolico and walk away. Seriously though human relationships are like a maze and when people are stuck in them for whatever reason, well they get complicated. No your not judging, you’re venting the frustration you get when you see people being stupid and not knowing it.
      I dropped by your Christmas memories late last month, I’ll drop over and have another look.
      I wish you and Mike Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo along with your family, and make sure that g/daughter does some washing up.


  4. liz blackmore

    I have seen what the families on the outside have to go through, Laurie, and it is sad/aggravating how selfish those on the inside can be. I am happy to hear that bread and water may be an option. I wonder if it is still used in Canada?
    All the best to you and your circle of love, my friend!



Tell me what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s