Skip Content

Howard League blog · 21 Dec 2023

Christmas in prison

For many of us, this is a magical time of year. The ordinary and everyday suddenly transformed, we look forward to time with family – to eating too much, giving and receiving gifts and setting plans for the new year.

But in prisons across the country, there is little to look forward to.

No one knows what it is like to spend the holiday period in prison better than those who have experienced it. We asked three men who have spent Christmas inside to describe what they remember.


‘making the best of a bad situation’

One man told us that he found Christmas “particularly difficult”:

Christmas is a time for being at home with family and eating lots of food. All of the adverts for food made me so miserable and hungry. I became particularly averse to Christmas music, because it just kept reminding me of what I was missing. Christmas Day is typically a day whereby you are locked up for 24 hours as there are generally less staff around. Often you may receive a bag of treats from the prison as a gift- I remember receiving a can of coca cola, a chocolate bar, and (somewhat randomly) a Jamaican beef patty. I remember my cellmate screaming out through the hole in the door, “I want my f**king festive bag!” at the top of his lungs.

I remember ordering a cake in Wandsworth for a person on my wing that had a Christmas day birthday, and a few of us had a slice each. Sometimes, it is about making the best of a bad situation.

New Years Eve is always a rather poignant affair. People make hooch, and try to hide it all around the wing. It is advisable not to consume it, because you are told it can make you go blind or kill you, but many people don’t seem to care. You hear a countdown, and then everyone starts banging on the doors en masse in what felt like to me, some sort of profound act of defiance and protest against mass incarceration.


‘resilience and coping skills’

Another man made a list of the positives and negatives of Christmas in prison, starting with the negatives:

Negative aspects over the Christmas period

Family Separation: The most poignant aspect is the separation from family and loved ones. Christmas is traditionally a time for family gatherings, and being away from this can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Extended Lockdown Periods: Due to staff holidays and reduced staffing levels, prisoners may face longer periods of confinement in their cells. This can lead to increased feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety.

Lack of Festive Atmosphere: Prisons typically lack the festive decorations and atmosphere that are ubiquitous outside. The absence of traditional Christmas stimuli like decorations, music, and communal activities can be disheartening.

Limited Access to Seasonal Foods and Celebrations: While some prisons may provide a special meal, the overall access to festive foods and the ability to partake in Christmas celebrations is significantly limited.

Reflection and Regret: The festive season often prompts introspection, which can be particularly challenging for prisoners.

Disrupted Routines: Regular prison routines might be altered due to the holiday season, which can be unsettling for some inmates who rely on routine for stability.

Limited Communication with the Outside World: Although some prisons may allow extra phone calls or visits during the holidays, overall, the opportunities for communication with the outside world remain limited.

Mental Health Challenges: The holiday season can intensify existing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, due to the factors mentioned above.

Some positives

Support from Charities: Organisations like The Howard League for Penal Reform advocate for neprisoners’ rights and welfare. Their efforts provide a sense of hope and reassurance that someone is fighting for their better treatment, rehabilitation and eventual freedom.

Opportunities for Reflection and Growth: The quiet of the holiday season can offer prisoners a chance for introspection and personal growth. This period can be used for setting goals, engaging in self-improvement activities, and planning for a better future.

Community and Solidarity Among Inmates: The shared experience of spending Christmas in prison can foster a sense of community and solidarity among inmates. This can lead to supportive friendships and a feeling of not being alone in their struggles.

Spiritual Support: For those who are religious or spiritual, Christmas can be a time of renewed faith and hope. Prison multi-faith centres often provide extra support and services during this period.

Positive Communication with Family: Although limited, the opportunity for phone calls or visits during Christmas can be a significant emotional boost, reinforcing family bonds and the support system outside prison.

Resilience and Coping Skills: Navigating the challenges of the festive season in prison can lead to the development of resilience and coping skills, which are valuable for life inside and outside prison.


‘sense of community’

A third man said that Christmas was “a very tricky period to navigate” in prison:

Some prisons try and decorate segments of the wings to make it feel Christmassy, they put a tree up and place some fake presents underneath it. The staff even come in with Christmas jumpers. So, although it is a bleak time of the year the staff make every effort to make it as enjoyable as possible. On the flip side however, as working the Christmas shift is unsociable hours, you often get those who are not interested in Christmas and are therefore grumpy – real-life grinches. They easily wind people up when inmates are trying to have a good time or block out the fact that they are inside. I explain this because it can be either an enjoyable time or a really antagonising time.

Apart from the officer selection, the food is a big talking point. When individuals receive their Christmas menu sheets and see ‘half a chicken’ they instantly get excited. However, when you have spent a few years in prison, you realise that actually what you’re getting is a chicken leg and a few extra bones, people often refer to it as ‘half a Pidgeon’; There is no substantial difference. They do, however, give you an extra cake or two and add in the extra fruit.

Many of the lads stock up on their canteen sheets; at Christmas you have a double spend on the canteen out of your private money. Having plenty of munch readily available for the Christmas movies goes down well with spending loads of time banged up. You are usually in your cell more throughout the festive period as there aren’t many staff around.

The way the negative emotions are dealt with throughout this period, is through prisoner relationships. There is a real sense of community at xmas time. Everyone normally wishes one another merry Xmas at unlock. A lot of the lads share food, play competitions on association and I have seen some have karaoke sessions. There are prizes for the winners in each competition. Despite the festive spirit in prison it is an extremely difficult period knowing that you should be home spending time with loved ones. Also, this period is when feelings of guilt and remorse creep in for the people you have hurt in the past.

Overall a very tricky period to navigate.


Noor Khan


  • SecurTel says:

    Being away with your loved ones is hard, especially on those special occasions. I hope that all inmates still feel the spirit of the Christmas season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation