Wil Patterson - author of Mr Ordinary Goes to Jail reflects on the rumours that circulate around jail at Christmas time.
I’ve heard so many rumours about all the ‘special treatment’ prisoners get while inside. This Christmas I will have been released from goal for five years, and it still makes me chuckle when I hear some of the things top-notch journalists in Australia decide to dredge up about the prison conditions.
Myth #1: Prisoner’s get the internet
Wrong. This story hinged on the fact that Port Phillip prison has a wireless network. If you go past the prison the network might show up on your phone. Of course, a huge, multi-building complex like Port Phillip has its own wireless network, just not for the prisoners’ use though.
Myth #2 Prisoners get Foxtel
This is actually true in one case that I’m aware of. Fulham prison has a very basic limited version of Foxtel. Why? There’s no TV reception in the area where the prison is built, so they have a Foxtel satellite – pretty simple really.
Myth #3 G4S (the biggest private prison company in Australia) bought a SHIPPING CONTAINER full off bags of lollies for prisoners!
This one is true actually. The part of the story that wasn’t included is that G4S sell those bags of lollies to the inmates. Inmates earn on average $5.50 per day. Once a week they can go to the canteen and spend that money on everything from stamps, to coffee, to yes lollies.
But there is one rumour that will always be my favourite and it gets rehashed almost every year around this time…
Myth #4 Prisoners get served lobster at Christmas
This ‘scandal’ originated from the Beechworth Correctional Centre where I was incarcerated. It didn’t happen in my time, but I worked in the kitchen and so when Christmas came around, one of the kitchen workers ask the guard if we could have lobster too.
‘You idiots,’ was the guard’s response. ‘It wasn’t even lobster, it was duck, and it wasn’t Christmas, it was New Year, and it wasn’t even your new year it was Chinese bloody New Year!’
Here’s the real story. At Beechworth inmates are housed in units of eight. Some of the units ‘self-cater’, which means the $7 per prisoner per day the government allocates to feed us is given to the inmates and they order food which they cook and prepare themselves. At Beechworth inmates also tend to share a lodge based on ethnic or religious identifiers. There is a self-catered Asian lodge. When it came around to Chinese New Year, the Asian lodge spokesperson went to the Governor and asked if they could honor their traditions by having duck on New Year. The Governor said yes.
Amusingly, through a process that could only be described as Chinese whispers, two roasting ducks somehow because enough lobster to feed the whole prison, and a beat-up story was written in one of Melbourne’s better-known newspapers.
That’s not to say we didn’t get something special at Christmas when I was there. On 13 December, the Governor announced that we would get an extra week’s pay the following Tuesday (which was payday). This would coincide with a special form we could get from the canteen to order ‘Christmas treats’. The list of treats was limited, but excellent. Shortbread, those little wafers that are lined with chocolate, Cadbury chocolate-covered peanuts, fruit and nut chocolate or scorched almonds.
In our lodge we made a pact: each of us would save half the money to spend on ourselves and out the other towards a party.
I bought myself a jar of chocolate peanuts, two tins of wafers and two packets of shortbread.
We sat around planning what to buy with the pooled money. I don’t remember whom I spoke to on the outside on Christmas day, I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but I do remember we turned off the overhead lights and sat with two lamps on and talked. We shared Christmas memories, we laughed, some of us cried, and we filled our bellies with roast leftovers from lunch, and the special treats we had chosen until we were sleepy. We dreamed about where we would be next Christmas. I remember hugging two of my friends and feeling genuine gratitude for them.
You see, what the people who write the articles about prison don’t understand is that the men who go to prison already know there will be no Foxtel or internet or lobster. Their reporting is based on trying to find an angle to make it ‘Us vs Them’. Their headlines shout ‘Be angry at prisoners because they have Foxtel and lobster and YOU don’t! The news stories are so focused on this click bait that they entirely misunderstand that Foxtel and lobster are not what you miss and they are not what you need.
When you’re inside at Christmas time, it’s enough to crack open a jar of chocolate peanuts and have the smell remind you of the crystal snack bowl that your granny had on her table at Christmas. It’s enough to have people to share your chocolate peanuts with, to dream about next Christmas with, and to reminisce with. Whether you’re in prison or with your family, these are the things we all crave and we all need. The rest is just nonsense.