Scotland's Largest Prison At Barlinnie / Getty Images

As Christmas day looms on the horizon, Britain's prisoners reveal what it's like to spend the festive season locked up

On a bitter cold December morning in Glasgow’s HMP Barlinnie prison, 35 year-old inmate John* introduces himself in the staff canteen.

We had arranged to talk about being in prison over Christmas, but his mind was elsewhere.

A day earlier he had been told his father had passed away, and the realisation he was locked up hit home when his sister was unable to get permission to enter the prison to tell him the news.

The feeling was a familiar one. His mother also died this time last year.

“I’ve been asking for the doctor, but it’s hard to get to see him. You need to book it, and they say it takes five or six days, it’s no’ good,” he mutters in a thick Glaswegian accent. “I’ve bitten my nails until they’re bleeding, I’m in agony, man.”

Housing approximately 1,200 inmates, Barlinnie is the largest prison in Scotland. It is a crumbling Victorian complex with towering chimneys. Circular barbed wire snakes around huge bleak walls, high enough to convince anyone that a break out is out the question.

John will spend Christmas day in Barlinnie cooking for staff. He is an “enhanced” prisoner, which allows him more visits and freedom with the prison. It is a scheme that brings him closer to fellow inmates and prison staff alike.

He and his colleagues will enjoy their Christmas dinners in the relative quiet of the staff canteen, while the other inmates receive their meals from a hot plate in each of the prison’s individual halls. They can eat it in the halls provided or - as it often the case - choose to eat it in their cells in front of the TV.

William McGurk, First Line Manager at Barlinnie, has worked at the prison for 39 years. “It used to be very much ‘them and us’, but nowadays I’d say the staff and the prisoners have good relations. We’ve got a lot more facilities for the prisoners - gyms, jobs, and the food is a lot better”.

Prisoner and catering staff member David, 30, agrees. He is spending his tenth Christmas in prison under a life sentence. He was allowed to leave Barlinnie and visit his family earlier this month under the special escorted leave programme.

“They’ve not even seen me this time of the year, other than in the visit room,” he says.

Schemes such as this also extend south of the border, which a proportion of England and Wales’ 85,406 prisoners can apply for.

Tom, 31, worked as a cleaner during his 27 months inside, after being convicted for conspiracy to supply drugs in 2008.

He “decided to be a good boy” and says that one year he was allowed to temporarily leave prison and go home for Christmas as part of his sentence plan.

“My whole family was buzzing. We take Christmas quite seriously, we’ll have a 20-people family dinner at Christmas,” he said.

Prisoners cannot send or receive presents during the festive period, but efforts are made to brighten the mood. Meanwhile each prison in the UK celebrates Christmas slightly differently.

Barlinnie, for example, takes part in the Santa Run - a project which sees hundreds of the inmates dress as Santa Claus and running five kilometres, raising money for When You Wish Upon a Star, a project which sends children in hospices to Lapland.

It also runs quizzes for the inmates, allows more time for “association” (time out the cells), and runs pool competitions.

Inmate David said: “There are some guys that gives Christmas cards to one another, some guys buy a wee bit of extra canteen food, people buy a bag of coffee or tobacco for one another. Some guys will make a (charity) donation in their friend’s name.”


Stephen, also 31, spent Christmas day in Doncaster prison, run by Serco Home Affairs. He went there after being convicted for fraud and assaulting police officers.

“Christmas day is just like any other day, really. Obviously you’d want to call and ring your family on Christmas morning or whenever you get the chance to use the phone.

“You have a Christmas lunch which is just a standard Christmas dinner, but with plastic cutlery and plastic plates.

“In the afternoon, on a normal day you’d get an hours’ worth of association where you can play pool and things, but on Christmas day we were allowed out all afternoon, so there were a couple of pool competitions and table tennis competitions and things like that, just to try and create a bit of goodwill. It was more like being at a youth club.

“No one could have any complaints. The officers organised a few pool competitions where they put chocolate bars and things for prizes, out of their own pocket. Generally the staff were pretty good and they were sympathetic to the fact that you are in prison on Christmas day.

“No matter what they’ve done people just want to have a decent Christmas day and everyone is pretty friendly on the day. We were banged up at the same time at about 5 o’clock and back in with our cell mates.”

Stephen said he regretted not be able to be with his family, and in particular, his son, who joined over 200,000 children in England and Wales who have parents in prison, according to Banardo’s.

Figures released this month by Banardo’s found children make 500,000 visits to prison each year, putting a strain on prisons which are already struggling with staff cuts.

Referring to England and Wales, Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform said: “Staff cuts have been now 40 per cent, so prisons are operating on a shoe string. I think it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll be able to get any visits done.

“Normally a prisoner has the right to a visit from the family once every two weeks, and that will normally last about an hour. But there won’t be any visits over Christmas because there aren’t any staff to supervise them”.

“The holiday period is weekends. It’s all like weekends. They’re just locked up the whole time over the holidays. Prisons get locked up over weekends so that the staff can go home, which is fair enough. But it is a problem, so that means that the three or four weeks over Christmas, staff want to be with their families, so there is a lockdown in prisons across the whole board.

“Prisoners won’t be getting out during the week at all. It’s pretty grim and you do find that the suicide rate goes up over Christmas and the holiday period, it always does.

“The lack of staff means that prisoners have become much more violent places. If you lock up young men for days on end, as one prison officer said to me, ‘they come out fighting’. They go stir crazy.

“This year I’m terrified that it’s going to be really bad.”

In response to the claims, the Ministry of Justice said: “The Howard League's figures on staffing are not comparing like for like. They have compared the headcount of all officer grades in September 2010 with the full-time equivalent of only prison officer grade (Band 3 and Officer Specialists) in June 2014.  

“From September 30, 2010 to June 30, 2014 the levels of officers in public sector prisons have changed from 24,580 full time equivalent (FTE) to 17,970 FTE (27% decrease).

When taking into account prison closures and the movement of prisons between public and private sectors, the reduction in staff FTE was 20%.”

“We have repeatedly stated that this staffing claim by the Howard League is based on a flawed analysis of non-comparable data.  They are aware the 41% figure is misleading yet they continue to use it. Comparable figures are published in the NOMS Workforce Statistics Bulletin.”

Justice Minister Andrew Selous said: “As with all major religious festivals, prisoners will have the opportunity to worship over Christmas and take part in appropriate activities set by individual prison Governors.”

“Claims that there will be an increase in violence at Christmas are completely unfounded. We will always have enough staff to run safe and secure prisons and staff work hard to ensure a safe regime over what can be a difficult period for prisoners.

“The rate of assaults each year under this Government is lower than any year between 2006 and 2009, and our prisons are less overcrowded then they were under the last Government. We do not tolerate violence of any kind and will always push for the most serious charges to be laid against offenders.”

Meanwhile more prisoners in England and Wales will see themselves locked up over Christmas, down to an increase in the average sentences doled out since the Coalition government came to power.

Last month The Ministry of Justice released figures showing that average sentences had increased by nearly two months since June 2010.

Despite the gloomy figures, there are some that actually want to get into prison over the Christmas period.

Ex-police inspector Ewan Fairfull remembers one particular Newcastle homeless man called Chucky, who purposefully committed crimes to get off the streets and into a warm cell: “He just wanted to get inside. With his history he knew that would have his new year in custody too.

“Each (Christmas) it got worse and worse, and he would do something that would make it impossible not to arrest him. It got to the stage where he actually broke a window of the police station, which he knew we couldn’t ignore!”

Many prisoners feel they are consigned to a life in prison, and grow to enjoy the limited provisions given to them over the Christmas period.

As we leave the Barlinnie prison staff canteen, First Line Manager William McGurk argues that it isn’t the prisoners that suffer during Christmas, rather their loved ones.

“(Prisoners’ families) are the ones having to bring up the kids, buy presents. The prisoners here haven’t got any responsibility. The people that really do the time are the families”.

*The names of prisoners have been changed