Christmas highlights tedium of prison life

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THERE is little to alleviate the boredom of prison life at the best of times. At Christmas the tedium can be even more acute.

Such activities as exist in jail - workshops and education - close over the festive period when staff take holidays. In some institutions prisoners spend more time out of their cells but have little with which to occupy themselves apart from television. Even then, they are likely to be locked up by early evening.

For much of the year, visits can offer a point of interest. But at Christmas, the visiting rooms are closed and inmates have to rely on phone calls.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'Basically, there is sod all to do.' It was a time when feelings of depression and isolation were likely to be more intense.

Former inmates said that in some institutions the supply of drugs and home-made alcohol proliferated over Christmas. However, prison reformers said that staff often made an effort with limited resources to ensure that Christmas was at least noted. 'The Christmas meal is marginally better than what they get for the rest of the year,' Mr Fletcher said.

Inmates are allowed to decorate their cells. Musical or padded Christmas cards are, however, prohibited as a security risk.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'Staff do make an effort to try to make it slightly better at Christmas.' He said that at low-security jails many prisoners were allowed out.

Older prisoners are to be used to advise young inmates on how to survive jail sentences. Under a Home Office scheme called Listening Prisoners selected experienced inmates will be sent on six- week Samaritans courses before being paired off with younger inmates having problems.