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Christmas behind bars

If Paul Kelly is related to his bushranger namesake, that’s not why he’s famous. His songs are as much a part of the Aussie landscape as kookaburras and cockatoos, especially during Christmas when his instructions on How to Make Gravy reverberate throughout the nation along with the popping of corks and the pulling of crackers. One of the soundtracks of the season, it’s a letter home from a prisoner who always made the gravy.

Every year thousands of men and women spend Christmas behind bars. They’ll have some kind of celebration—perhaps pulling crackers but certainly not pulling corks—and the day will be a break from the monotony of every other day of the year. But for each prisoner, the festivities will be counterweighted by thoughts of what they’re missing at home.

I went to prison once. I was locked up with the ‘lifers’ in Bristol’s Horfield Prison just down the road from where I lived. An austere fortress of high red-brick walls, the prison squats in the middle of a residential district, a few metres distance separating two very different worlds.

The entrance was through a door in a door through an archway that led to a courtyard. I was met by a woman: forty-something, formally dressed in ordinary clothes and friendly in a firm kind of way. She led through a succession of steel gates, opening them with a jangle of keys and shutting them with an ear-jarring slam. A white-painted corridor, a steel staircase, then a door that opened into a comfortable communal room with windows too high to see out of.

A projector faced a small screen. I switched it on, inserted my carousel of slides, clicked forward to the first slide and twiddled the lens to sharpen the image of Everest in a warm bath of evening light.

Men arrived in ones and twos. Their ages ranged from about thirty to sixty and they were casually dressed in ordinary clothes. All were white except for one. They glanced at the screen. A murmur of anticipation hummed among them as they arranged the chairs in theatre style, then they sat quietly while I took them up Mount Everest. Some were transfixed and smiled throughout. Others seemed distracted, perhaps not wishing to be reminded of the freedom they'd lost. One of them was especially distant; he gazed through the high window with an expression of sadness and resentment, brooding like a caged beast.

After the talk and an extended Q&A session, the dozen or so 'lifers' lined up like a motley guard of honour. I moved along the line, shaking their offered hands. Some were firm and heartfelt, others limp and clammy—no different to any other disparate group of men. One young man seemed especially grateful. He was about my age, similar in height and build, with lively eyes and a ready smile. His clean-shaven face was crowned by a mullet of dark, wiry hair. His handshake was firm. Meeting his eyes, I wondered where he’d gone wrong, where he’d—in Paul Kelly’s words—screwed up this time. It seemed the only thing that was different about us was our circumstances.

Those of us who’ve lived fully have all made poor decisions. We’ve chanced our luck, but most of us don’t get caught, or we catch ourselves in time. These men were incarcerated for life, while I was free. But how different were we, really? What fluke of fate put them in that place? And by whose grace was I not with them, locked up, with only a few squares of sky to show of the world beyond the prison walls? It’s not a rare occasion that events spiral out of control. One thing leads to another, and another, then one day you’re doing something that society judges to be unacceptable. You’ve become a criminal. And then you get caught. And then you’re locked up. If you’ve really screwed up, you’re in here with the ‘lifers’.

On the way out, between the clang of barred doors and the crunch of keys in numerous locks, I asked my prison escort how long the ‘lifers’ would really spend in prison.

'Life means life', she said. 'Most of them will never be released.'

My right hand suddenly felt contaminated. 'Really? I hate to think what they’re guilty of.'

She shot me a stern look. 'You really don't want to know.'

That was twenty-eight years ago. Some of the prisoners will have passed on by now, thereby released from their life sentences. But others I met that day will still be there, twenty-eight Christmases later, staring out of the high windows at the big sky beyond the steel bars. Perhaps, among the songs of the season, they’ll hear How to Make Gravy and feel envious of Paul Kelly’s hapless prisoner who—if he gets good behaviour—will be out by July.

But they won’t be. They’ll still be there next Christmas. And when I hear Paul Kelly sing his Christmas tune, I’ll think of those guys in Horfield Prison, still standing in line, waiting for the end of life to free them.


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