It’s almost Christmas time and many of us will be looking forward to family celebrations, a break from work and a chance to eat a lot of food and have a few drinks. But for those in custody, 25 December will be quite a different experience.
There are currently 34,000 people in custody across Australia, 11,000 of whom are in NSW prisons. Needless to say, they will not be spending the festive season at home with their loved ones.
Many inmates will not even have been convicted of any offence, but will be waiting for their day in court after being refused bail under strict new laws – sometimes for more than two years.
Contact with friends and family
Christmas is just another day inside many prisons – and often even more lonely, since prison visits in NSW are not allowed on Christmas day. Friends and family may instead visit their loved ones the days before or after.
This can make Christmas a sad time for inmates, and it is no surprise that it can be one of the most difficult times of the year for those in custody.
Some organisations such as the Salvation Army try to provide some Christmas cheer, by providing parcels containing socks, notepads, stamped envelopes and lollies.
Inmates can receive or send Christmas cards, but there is a limit on how many cards they can send, and they must pay for the cards themselves.
Even making phone calls from prison can be difficult. There can be fierce competition between inmates over using the phone on Christmas day.
For some inmates, it has been traditional to save fruit or even vegemite to brew their own alcohol called ‘pruno’, especially in the lead to Christmas. This has led to a ban of Vegemite in Victorian prisons in 2007.
Prison searches often intensify in the lead-up to Christmas, both of inmates and their cells.
Cigarettes, one of the few luxuries available to inmates to deal with stress or anxiety, are also out of the question for inmates – at least legally.
As of 10 August 2015, NSW prisons have been smoke-free, meaning that this is the first time inmates will not be allowed to smoke on Christmas day. Penalties for smoking or attempting to smuggle cigarettes into prisons apply. Several other parts of Australia have also banned cigarettes, Northern Territory being the first in 2013, with Queensland following the next year and Tasmania in January 2015. Cigarettes have been banned in Victoria since July this year.
Prison overcrowding has reached a crisis point in NSW , with far more people in custody than the system was designed to handle. Many will be spending Christmas in small, overcrowded cells – often designed to house one person but being forced to accommodate for up to three people.
Christmas Day Riot in prison
On Christmas day in 1998, there was a riot in Casuarina Prison, a maximum security correctional centre in Western Australia.
Inmates pried bricks from walls and used them as weapons. They banded together and overpowered the unarmed guards.
Thankfully no one died, although two inmates and several prison officers were treated in hospital after the incident.
Many prison officers refused to go back to work after the riot, which arose over overcrowding and harsh conditions.
So Merry Christmas to all, but perhaps we should spare a thought for those who will be spending Christmas behind bars – especially those who have not been convicted of any crime.