An Ex-Offender’s Christmas: Anna’s Experiences Serving Time During the Holiday Period

For those involved in the rehabilitation or resettlement process, Christmas is a struggle. Separated from loved ones, far from home, and unable to change the circumstances they have to, “make the best of a bad situation.” It forces them to adapt and do everything in their power to make it as beautiful as possible for family, those around them and themselves. After all, Christmas is about goodwill, love, and kindness. 

Christmas offers time to reflect and plan for the future. A time for development and growth. In prison, they are life-changing moments that do not leave you. Prison can make people selfish because they spend so much time alone and not being responsible for day-to-day things. They can forget the impact their absence has on those at home and can put their grief above everyone else’s.  

The experience creates a divide within the self, like the locks used to segregate the person and isolate the halves of the whole; The survivor and the showman.  

The survivor is the half locked behind the door processing complex but natural emotions; grief, anger, frustration, guilt, envy and shame. The survivor hasn’t learnt to express those emotions healthily and wants others to feel their pain. Sometimes it isn’t intentional, they know no different but it hurts those closest to them. 

The survivor needs to develop emotional intelligence to understand their feelings, their root causes and stressors, to learn how to manage and healthily express them. 

The showman is the selfless side determined to focus on the future and rebuild all that has been damaged.  It has been developed to manage what they can control, is open about their feelings and is a constructive presence on the wing because they are conscious of other people needs. They make cheery and enthusiastic phone calls to loved ones governing what they say and asking about their lives and how they are.  

Both sides are valid and necessary. With growth comes pain. The tearing down of previous patterns of behaviour so that positive change can be made. Uniting them is an intrinsic step in development, even if you don’t realise it at the time.  

It means using the survivor’s time behind the door to accept responsibility for themselves.  Owning up to what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again in the real world; Processing and releasing past trauma so that it doesn’t sit like the poison of self-sabotage anymore. Hoping you can be better by enacting accountability and putting the work into action straight away. On prison landings that looks like talking about your feelings with people going through the same experience as you, supporting and encouraging one another through a really painful and dark time. Everyone is missing home. All mothers are grieving their children. Everyone carries shame.  

Self-development and emotional intelligence come much later in the sentence. It takes willingness and time. When you settle into prison the first two lessons learnt are patience and that you only have control over yourself. Everything else is governed by the regime. Things take time to process and nothing is quick. Why would self-discovery be any different? 

Often you hear guilty mothers saying, “We shouldn’t be laughing or enjoying ourselves.”  

The thing is, punishing themselves will not make Christmas better for anyone at home or themselves. They’re in prison regardless. It is already bad enough. It is the time of year that you feel your exile from society most keenly. Whether you enjoy it or not, it is still going to happen. You cannot change it. What you can control is your approach to the day and when everyone does that it is a beautiful thing. Call loved ones and try to embody the excitement that children have. Yes, it will hurt, but you will feel like a part of it and so will they. 

The staff plan creative activities, games and offer emotional support during the run-up to Christmas. Engage in them. It makes a positive difference for everybody. 

I know this system works from lived experience. I served through two Christmases. The first was diabolical, the second brilliant.

The second Christmas was different because my attitude and perspective had changed and matched those of the people around me. I engaged in craft activities and decorating competitions during advent. It gave me things to talk about to loved ones, enhanced the atmosphere on the spur and helped my mental health. Out of scraps, I made a huge model of the Coca-Cola truck (including hubcap screws if you please!). I loved that, previously reluctant women came to help, sharing hints and tricks to make it better. Another woman made an incredible, gingerbread house and it had the same impact. It even generated ideas for ways to improve Family Day for the children because the majority of the women got involved.

Every year, the staff dress up and serve the prisoners Christmas dinner to give the women working in the servery a day off. It is a traditional turkey dinner with pigs in blankets and The Salvation Army come in and play Christmas Carols on every houseblock. It holds a kind of magic in my memory because of the way it made me feel at that moment.

I had one month left to serve and I was getting more anxious about my release. At Christmas, everything shuts down. Prisons operate on skeleton staff, courts close so there are no new arrivals and all agencies close for the festive break. If you are released close to this time then your resettlement into society is impeded because you cannot access help. I was lucky that I wasn’t being discharged just before or immediately after the Christmas break.

I realised I was upset to be leaving and that stirred conflicting emotions for me. I felt so little was in place and ready. I was already venturing into an unknown quantity with the usual barriers a criminal record generates, and I was in a safer position than most.

Things that should be prepared before release:

All of these things are out of the offender’s control. This adds to the fear because it is a new set of rules to accept, but this time the ramifications of that can leave you homeless and reoffending, doing all the things you’ve worked so hard to change.

Accommodation –I was going to live with family for a bit as I wasn’t allowed home immediately. But, with under a month to go, probation still hadn’t carried out the necessary checks to approve this. Some offenders cannot be released unless it is to an ‘approved premises’ (IAPS) where there is additional support and supervision to protect the public. At that time there were only TWO IAPS available to women in the UK.

Approved Premises are premises approved under Section 13 of the Offender Management Act 2007. The term currently applies to over 100 premises, providing over 2000 bed spaces, managed either by the National Probation Service or by independent organisations. Currently, the independent sector provide around 10% of the overall Approved Premises Estate.

(Association, n.d.)

JCP (Job Centre) – The Resettlement Department schedule an appointment for the first week of your release. This is to set up benefits, complete housing applications and start job searches. Some charities provide clothes for interviews.

Probation – The Offender Management Unit schedules an appointment for the first day of your release.

Substance Misuse – Keyworker will have signposted to local services and sometimes help attend the first meeting.

Employment – This is the element that offenders could take control of if given the appropriate means. The Work Skills Programme had stopped within the first year of my sentence. The CV I had written was already out of date and I was nervous about disclosure, but I was optimistic and chomping at the bit to apply for jobs. I had completed ROTL [Release on Temporary Licence] for two separate work placements and been offered positions in both firms. But I was relocating 200 miles away, I’m open to a commute but that was impossible!

Had the Imployable app been on the houseblock ‘pods’ [computer system which managed everything, applications for appointments, visits, menu choices, canteen orders and charitable donations] or accessible in the Resettlement Department, with access to an updated CV, many people in my position would have been applying for jobs and arranging interviews ready for their release from prison.

Their goal is to change their lives for their families. They understand the importance of employment to resettlement and the hurdles that a criminal record presents to securing a role and succeeding. But they are determined, spurred on by the need for financial security and the honour of being able to provide for their loved ones, especially after so long of not being the one to do so. For those leaving over winter, the added worry of homelessness and the cold are visceral.

The opportunity to take initiative and use the app, or have a method to job search and apply in advance would have been a weight off. The knowledge of the current job market, attainable roles, hours and rates of pay would allow them to plan and talk to the JCP and OMU about their support needs comprehensively, avoiding the disconnect between organisations and shell-shock on release as all the information hits at once. Crucially, it would have built confidence, restored some pride and independence. All of which take a huge knock upon release when it hits home that society isn’t as forgiving as you’d hoped, regardless of your self-development, atonement or how many Christmases you’ve served.

I look back on that second Christmas fondly. The memories are warm, I think of the women and staff and hope they are doing well. I miss that Anna at times, the one before I became jaded and had the hope knocked out of me, but then, without her, I wouldn’t be here, having started Blotted Blog and supporting people just like me.

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