Last year I wrote a little about why Christmas is often such a volatile time in prison. Well, one of the main ways that prisoners (and staff) use to get through the holiday period is distraction. Whether it is cooking (at prisons where kitchens are available on the wings), taking part in competitions, or simply finding something to do, distraction breaks both boredom and discomfort with a change in routine.
I rarely sign up for competitions, but this year I have put in for a few. There is pool and snooker, table tennis and darts, chess and draughts, scrabble and dominoes. There is also a football tournament between all of the different kinds of prisoner representatives, whether that be equality reps, antibullying reps, or any of the other eleventeen types. However, these competitions were all organised by prisoners. Some years ago there was somewhat of an outcry in the press over the fact that many prisons were organising Christmas competitions and issuing prizes which were paid for out of the prison budget, which of course comes from public funds. The reaction of most governors has been to say that we can no longer run such competitions, so it has fallen upon us prisoners to organise it for ourselves.
What both the press and the authorities at prison service HQ don’t seem to realise is that such competitions were only ever intended to help maintain order. When prisoners are disgruntled with the upheaval to their routine, or personally stressed because they can’t be with their families over the holidays, a simple competition can break up the day and get you from morning unlock to evening bang up without any problems or conflict. The cost was only ever minimal, and the benefits (especially to those with a history of self harm) were huge. That’s why governors may have stopped providing prizes, but they still support, and often actively encourage, prisoners to set up such distractions for themselves.