Howard League blog · 3 Jan 2018
Christmas in a children’s prison
I visited a prison holding 160 teenage boys aged 15 to 17 over the Christmas holidays. It was a depressing day. An inspection report, which I have not seen but fully expect will be critical, is due to be published soon, so I am not going to comment on the overall treatment of the children at this stage. I just want to say something about Christmas.
There wasn’t any. No Christmas. No decorations. No celebration.
As far as I could see the only indication of the festive season was that there were fewer staff on duty as they were taking (well deserved) holidays. I saw half a paper chain hanging from a window in the room used for adjudications in the wing where the boys who are in trouble are locked up all day.
What I saw would have done Scrooge proud
I visited several cells and saw no evidence of festivities in the cells or on the landings.
I asked whether it was a deliberate decision to ignore the normal festivities, perhaps in weird effort to protect the children from feeling they were missing out even more poignantly, but didn’t get a substantive response. I think it was just another indication of a struggling institution that lacked direction and purpose.
It could be so different. Surely it would be possible to ask the local Women’s Institute to bake some mince pies, a supermarket to donate some fresh vegetables (desperately lacking in their normal diet) and do a lucky dip for presents. Schools get the children to make decorations so they don’t cost much. It could be an opportunity to share joy and comfort for staff and boys.
What I saw would have done Scrooge proud.
I remember visiting a YOI for a Carol Service organised by local churches, the boys were outnumbered by staff. They were dressed in ill fitting jogging bottoms and sweatshirts in drab colours, no doubt they had been worn by others. The boys filed in and sat down, most didn’t join in. A chocolate snack was provided afterwards which was demolished quickly. My heart went out to them when they spoke of lack of food and no support from family.
Some of the boys hovered beside the instruments and their faces lit up when they were allowed to try them out. One lad started to play the piano and told me that he had taught himself. It was a pleasure listening to him. But it was sad for me as a Mother to see these young lads in prison.
I have very fond memories of our 1999-2005 years in HM YOI Feltham in our award-winning partnership with the great Foundation Training Co. Each Christmas, regardless of faith, boys who had attended our programme throughout the year and were still in detention were invited to a party of sorts with lots of food, soft drinks and a gift. A short escape from the daily drudgery or prison life. Adjudications nose-dived during those 6 years. HM YOI Feltham, by comparison, is now a totally soulless place, in ALL meanings of the word, devoid of hope.
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The problem is that prisons do not work. They do not work any level for any purpose or any person. They never have and they never will. People who work in them may not accept this, but at least, subconsciously they do not, because they must. Thus there is no motivation, no cheer, no joy, unless this is paid for by the cynical or is done by some kind person spasmodically, out of desperation. It is not built into the system.