As the season of goodwill approaches I'm reminded of how at this time of year one of the main things on the minds of people in prison is food.
Already prisoners all over the country will be stocking up on biscuits and other goodies saved for from prison wages and purchased from the prison "canteen".
From the daily provisions allowance, prison cooks will be skimming a little here and there so that they can put a little extra on the cons' plates over the forthcoming holiday in order to make Yuletide inside a little more palatable.
Yet it won't be long before popular newspapers are carrying mock-ups of prison Christmas menus, designed to outrage the man in the street and infuriate pensioners.
But regardless of their circumstances, prisoners are still people and in spite of their incarceration most will experience festive treats in one form or another. As my second Christmas in the world of the free beckons I recall a couple of my favourite repasts behind bars.
The first was the oddest meal I'd ever had. Queuing up at the hotplate on Christmas eve lunchtime in my first high security prison I was suddenly distracted from my conversation with the man in front of me by the sight of a tray of unfamiliar animal organs.
The curious items were brown and pear shaped and had what looked like bits of rubbery tubes attached. Of all the sights I'd been greeted with at mealtimes since my sentence had begun, this creepy-looking pile was the most intriguing.
"Sheep hearts," said the prisoner in the grey, originally white, serving jacket standing behind the serving counter when I asked him what they were. "A Christmas present from a local farmer," he added.
"Christ," I whispered. They looked like they had just been torn from the animals' chests by a gnarled, warty hand.
Many were coated with layers of yellow fat. The rubbery bits, I realised, were the remnants of major arteries, some of which had what appeared to be snippets of lung still attached. I noticed nobody appeared to be taking their portion.
"Yes please," I said, to the obvious surprise of Greyjacket. He uttered a wide-eyed snigger as he untangled a heart with his aluminium tongs and placed it gingerly on my stainless steel meal tray.
Then I had an idea. "Is there any spare?" I asked, prompting a look of disbelief. Before he could say anything a voice from behind me chirped up, "You can have mine," followed by another, and then another and another. By the time I got back to my cell my tray was laden with more than a dozen of the little delicacies.
I'd never cooked a meal in prison before but I knew that people did. On the ground floor of the wing a cell had been converted to provide "cooking facilities" (a Baby Belling cooker had been installed alongside a table and a metal bench.)
Every night a tense queue of hungry cons formed, pans and little bags of ingredients that had been filched or bought illicitly from the prison kitchen, in hand. Some saved their hotplate food and enriched it with spices and food bought from the prison shop (tinned fish or baked beans.)
I was amazed that nobody had seen the potential in the sheep hearts, especially that day of all days.
After quickly trimming the fat and other debris from the hearts with my plastic knife I sawed them into bite-sized pieces. In the afternoon I managed to borrow a pan and trade a quarter of an ounce of tobacco for a couple of onions, some potatoes and carrots and an oxo cube from a kitchen worker.
As soon as the doors were opened at 6pm for "association" I rushed down to the makeshift kitchen and then queued for an hour before getting my pan on one of the little cooker's big rings.
The hour left before bang up was just enough to boil and simmer my stew to perfection before it was time to scuttle back to my cell, where behind a locked door I stared through the bars of the window at the starry sky and enjoyed my, er, hearty feast, alone. This first experience of cooking for myself eventually added a whole new dimension to my prison time. I became a regular in the queue for the Baby Belling, where, despite the disagreements, arguments, and fights, I managed to pick up a variety of recipes and tips which at least once week helped me to create a meal that was tasty, filling, and nutritious.
And then I met Mr Patel. Mr Patel was a man with few associates, as far as I was aware. Whenever I saw him he always seemed to be carrying a small pan around. It was under his chair in the television room, or on his bench in the fabrication workshop where we worked.
He even took it out on the exercise yard. He couldn't have stood more than five feet high, yet unusually for such a small and obviously defenceless man nobody ever bothered him.
That was until the night he was shoved out of the Baby Belling queue. Without thinking I stepped in and stuck up for him. To my relief Mr Patel's challenger backed down and let him back in. Later Mr Patel and I became acquainted and as a reward for my earlier modest assistance he shared with me the secrets of his pan.
"Pilchard curry," he said, as I tasted a spoonful, which left my taste buds singing with joy. "I teach you how to make."
It was one of the most wonderful tasting meals imaginable and in time became my very own signature dish.
Every year I produced a special Christmas panful for my neighbours, yet despite my seasonal largesse, following Mr Patel's untimely passing I always resisted attempts by fellow cons to get me to share what I had idiosyncratically come to think of as my own "secret recipe."
Now I feel the time has come. In my next column I will reveal all.
By Erwin James posted 24 November 05
Call for reform of prison care for mentally ill
UK: Prisons would be legally obliged to provide specialist treatment and support to mentally ill inmates under Conservative proposals set before MPs.
Teaching role for prison staff urged in report
UK: Prison officers should play a greater role in the education of inmates to prevent reoffending, says an academic report published today. The report marks the first time that uniformed staff, who normally have little involvement in prisoner education, have been consulted at length.
A long stretch
UK: As head of prisons for England and Wales, Martin Narey tried to improve life for people on the inside. One of those inmates was Erwin James, then serving a life sentence. Now, as Narey leaves his job after a career spanning three decades, the two men meet and discuss the many problems still facing Britain's jails.
Prison officers responsible for smuggling into jails
Fresh Home Office research also confirmed the extent of abuse in prisons yesterday, and suggested that prison staff were one route for drugs to get in. The study found that smuggling by uniformed or civilian staff was thought to be "substantially increasing" the availability of heroin and cannabis behind bars.
Plea to release Biggs rejected by ruling-class
UK: Home Secretary Charles Clarke has rejected a plea by Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to be released from prison on compassionate grounds.
Prisons chief hits at 'gross' overcrowding
Martin Narey, a civil servant who has served every Home Secretary since 1989, highlights statistics showing that thousands of mentally ill inmates and a record number of children now constitute a significant part of the prison population.
Clarke faces a fight over probation overhaul
UK: The home secretary, Charles Clarke, yesterday confirmed his plans to abolish 42 local probation boards and instead create "a vibrant mixed economy" in the management of 200,000 offenders in the community.
The devilish advocate
UK: The devilish advocate John Hirst taught himself law in jail, and has never lost a case against the prison service. Erwin James meets up again with the former 'lifer' who won inmates the right to vote.
Racism still rife in jails, five years after the murder of Zahid Mubarek UK: The prison service will be strongly criticised for continued racial discrimination against ethnic minority inmates by the official report from the Zahid Mubarek inquiry.
UK prisoners should get vote, European court rules
UK: Laws setting out who can and cannot take part in elections are to be rewritten after the European court of human rights today ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the right to vote.
Prison plan 'will cut reoffending'
UK: A network of community prisons to help cut the number of criminals who re-offend has been outlined by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
Clarke to scrap plan to peg prison numbers
UK: The home secretary, Charles Clarke, has said he is to abandon his predecessor's aspiration of pegging the prison population in England and Wales at 80,000. He will also drop plans to put a legal obligation on the judges' sentencing guidelines council to take the size of the prison population - currently 77,000 and rising - into account when laying down the "going rate" for major crimes.
Crowded jails 'boosting suicides'
UK: The chief inspector of prisons warned that an overcrowding crisis in Britain's jails was leading to an increase in prisoner suicides.
Chief justice calls for new approach to law and order
UK: The retiring [ruling class] lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, made a passionate plea for a new approach to law and order which would see a major shift away from punishment towards the solution of problems which generate crime.
Britain's only prison ship ends up on the beach
UK: The last inmates have departed and a skeleton staff is left guarding Britain's only prison ship - in case anyone is minded to break in rather than out.
Throw away the key
The one profession to get results on recidivism has been sacrificed to Labour's desire to lock up criminals in private prisons.
Judges' misdeeds will remain secret
UK: Judges who are disciplined for bad behaviour will not have the findings against them made public under a complaints regime to be launched next year.
Prisoner total rises 15% in six years
England and Wales are continuing to jail offenders at a higher rate than any other major country in western Europe, it emerged today. New research indicates that the government's use of prison as its main tool of penal policy has increased by 15% since 1999.
CPS drops prosecution over death in custody
UK: The family of Roger Sylvester, who died after being restrained by police officers, yesterday expressed their disappointment at a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute any of the officers involved.
Prisoner's cell death
UK: A prisoner was found hanged in his cell last week, the Home Office said, fuelling criticism over the soaring number of suicides in custody.
Plans for five new 'superprisons'
Recent figures show a total of 75,550 prisoners were held in 139 jails in England and Wales, nudging up the previous record of April 2004 by just six inmates.
Prison has lost its way - report
UK: Bristol prison is suffering wide-ranging problems because of inconsistent management, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.
Row over acupuncture for prisoners
UK: The Home Office has responded to criticism over prison inmates who are being offered acupuncture on the NHS in order to relieve stress.
Number of prisoners sent back to jail trebles
UK: The number of prisoners being sent back to jail after release has nearly trebled in the past five years, according to a report published today.
Top judge says crowded prisons cannot break cycle of crime
UK: Reoffending rates after a prison sentence are at an "unacceptably high level" and the failure of the criminal justice system to stop prisoners reoffending should shock the public, England's top judge, [Ruling Class] Lord Woolf, said last week.
All the World's a Prison: History
No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.
Decade after inspector left in disgust, report tells of filth
UK: Dirty, mice-infested cells, high levels of self-harm, and widespread bullying over drugs and medications were just some of the damning findings of a report into conditions at Holloway, Britain's largest women's prison.
Most women 'should not be jailed'
Women make up 6% of the prison population in England and Wales. Imprisonment of women should be "virtually abolished", a prison reform group has said.
Youth 'murdered for officers' pleasure'
UK: An Asian teenager was murdered by a white racist after they were placed in the same cell as part of a game to fulfil the "perverted pleasure" of prison officers, a public inquiry heard on Friday.
Deaths in isolation as prison segregation increases
The use of segregation [solitary confinement] of prisoners as punishment has been increasing recently in Australia, the US, and the UK. Segregation can be used for protection or punishment, but in both cases it results in extreme psychological stress. An indication that segregation is being over-used is the appearance of deaths in custody from suicide of those placed in segregation.
Inquest blames jail for overdose death
UK: An inquest jury returned a verdict itemising a catalogue of faults at Styal prison in Cheshire, concluding that the prison's "failure of duty of care" contributed to the death of Sarah Campbell, 18, who took an overdose of tablets on the first day of her three-year sentence.
Put in the way of self-harm in a place intended to protect others
UK: Sarah Campbell, 18, spent the last hours of her life in the segregation unit of Styal prison, Cheshire. "The seg", as those places are referred to, used to be known as "the block", short for punishment block. [ Seg is a bullshit word for Punishment, Solitary Confinement, Torture, Mental Illness, Self-Harm, Human Rights Abuse and that is State Terror.]
Britain 'sliding into police state'
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is transforming Britain into a police state, one of the country's former leading anti-terrorist police chiefs [false flag police chiefs] said yesterday.
UK solitary confinement
UK: Segregation units are prisons within prisons - the places where the most unchecked brutality is meted out to prisoners. In recent years conditions in high security segregation units have deteriorated, and the use of long-term segregation as a control mechanism has increased.
Inquiry must root out prison racists
UK: It is difficult to imagine a more brutal murder than that of Zahid Mubarek. The 19-year-old was clubbed to death by his cellmate at Feltham Young Offender Institution in the early hours of 21 March 2000. He was due to be released just a few hours later.
Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'
UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm.
Plan to sell off juvenile jails as job lot
UK: The government is to put out to tender all its dedicated juvenile jails that hold children under 18 in a departure in Whitehall's privatisation programme.
Failure to sack 'racist' prison staff condemned
UK: Two prison officers suspended for racism are still on full pay three years after a stash of Nazi memorabilia, neo-fascist literature and Ku Klux Klan-inspired 'nigger-hunting licences' was found in a police raid on their home.
Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand
UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".
Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level
UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.
End of years of despair as Holloway closes its doors
But now Holloway prison in north London - where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, was hanged in 1955 - has been earmarked for closure, along with several other women's prisons, which have been hit by a spate of suicides.
How detox and self-help brought suicide jail back from the brink
UK: Six suicides in 12 months made Styal jail notorious and the Prisons Ombudsman criticised the prison and its staff for serious failures. But things are changing.
Belmarsh detainees consider suicide, says freed man
UK: The first of the Muslim detainees released from Belmarsh high security prison after being held on suspicion of terrorism has told the Guardian his fellow prisoners are suffering such severe mental problems that they constantly consider suicide.
Suicides and unrest have soared, admits Home Office
UK:The already overcrowded prison population is set to go on rising and will top 80,000 within the next three years, a senior Home Office civil servant warned yesterday.
England tops the EU in imprisonment
England and Wales jail more offenders per capita than any other European, Union country, according to new figures.
Govt, police 'let off the hook' Haneef inquiry
8 years ago