By Pam Hassett

Festive Fears, Supporting people in the justice system throughout the festive period

6th December 2022

People in prison often need extra support at this time of year, says Pam Hassett.

Christmas is almost upon us, and it can be an especially hard time for people in custody. With the Christmas period seemingly starting earlier and earlier each year, the impact it can have on the people that we support cannot be underestimated.  

We hear people talking openly about the stress this causes them, not only because they know they will not be with their families over the Christmas period and won’t be there to see the joy on their children’s faces when they open their presents, but also their feeling of guilt and shame that they feel for not being there.  

This time of year tends to be a time of reflection for the people that we support, not just on the year gone by but on where they find themselves now and the circumstances which led them here. I would say this is not necessarily a negative thing, as it’s a chance to explore these feelings, sometimes for the first time. It can also bring back memories from their own childhood Christmases, and feelings about how they want their children’s Christmases to be from now on. This can bring them motivation to address the reasons why they are where they are right now. 

With all of this in mind, there is the added pressure of the availability of substances. There is the temptation of wanting to block out these feelings and fall back on old ways of thinking – to ‘have a day off’ and get out of their own head, something which is explored on a one-to-one basis and in groups. It is still amazing to me how honest the people that we support are in expressing their feelings. It feels like ‘we’re all in the same boat together. We encourage people to support each other over this time, to get together and talk about how they’re feeling. 

In the run-up to Christmas from 1 November, the team get together and discuss Christmas and how we can best support people at what can be their most vulnerable time. Every year, in the two weeks leading up to Christmas we attend reception daily and see everyone who is being released. We talk to them about harm reduction and how to keep themselves safe if they do end up using drugs or alcohol. We also hold a daily drop-in service on wings, which gives people a chance to come and have a chat to us in a safe confidential space.  

We hold a feedback forum for people to have their say on how they would like to be supported over this period, and what they want that support to look like. The top feedback we have received every year has been to just simply sit down, share their feelings and to have a listening ear. 

In the run-up to Christmas, we also hold support groups with no specific topic to be addressed. It’s simply to talk about what’s going on for people right now and to share their feelings with their peers and gain support. This is where they tend to realise that they all share the same feelings of guilt and remorse at where they find themselves at Christmas. This leads to bonds being formed and a feeling that they can support each other over this time. Distraction packs are also available for anyone who needs them – these take the form of crosswords, Sudoku and colouring books.

We also can’t forget about the families who are impacted by their loved ones being in custody.  We arrange a family day, which means that families can have an extended half-day visit, and we also arrange for food to be provided and activities for the children and dads to do together. The hall is decorated, and families get the opportunity to spend more time with their loved ones. Pictures are taken of families as a memento of the day, and judging by the feedback received these are always greatly appreciated by everyone.

Apart from family days, by far the most popular activity is Christmas card-making, especially for their children. The people that we support take great pride in their creations, and it gives them a feeling of accomplishment in doing something personal for their children. Quizzes and bingo are always a big hit, especially when the prize is extra PIN credit to enable them to have extra contact with loved ones.

In the lead-up to Christmas, we also have a harm reduction campaign, which is a great opportunity to reach everyone in the establishment and spread the harm reduction message. In addition to this everyone is given harm reduction advice during one-to-one meetings, and we utilise our peer supporters to spread the message across the prison as they have access to people outside of our 9-5 working day.

Our peer support programme is now well established after COVID and it can be invaluable in offering support when we are not here. Peer supporters have an open-door policy so anyone can pop in and see them when they are struggling. They are easily recognisable in their Phoenix Futures t-shirts and the peer supporter sign outside their cell door. 

This Christmas will no doubt be a very busy time. However, our focus will be to support people through it and maybe spread a little festive cheer along the way.

Pam Hassett is Phoenix Futures service manager at HMP Wayland