By Rusty Brown and Mother

In jail, they say the days crawl by, but the weeks fly by. Sure, you probably imagined you'd learn a new language, get shredded in the gym and learn to play a musical instrument but life gets in the way : many jails require you to work, which eats into your time. Your cellmate also may not appreciate you strumming guitar or speaking Russian loudly.

I served almost 5 years and was lucky enough to have the support of my amazing Mum (amongst others) who is co-writing these top tips with me. Together, we found some great ways to keep the mind sharp, even when locked in your cell.

1. Learn the lingo

Having slated language learning as distracting to your cellmate, if you're banged up abroad you're going to have a huge advantage if you learn the local language. Reciting verbs when everyone's trying to sleep won't make you any friends, so check your prison library to see if they have any language learning packs. Failing that, do as I did and write directly to the Embassy of the country in question to request language learning materials and magazines.

If you have a loved one on the outside, they can help by sending in/giving you cash for a portable CD player and earphones, so you can learn quietly. You can always practise on your cellmate as you become more fluent.

Mum says: Don’t forget that you may need some TLC yourself as well as giving it, so don’t be afraid to reach out. PACT supports prisoners and their families by working with groups or one-to-one chats on the telephone. I found it so reassuring to be able to talk to a kind and non-judgemental person who was interested in my son’s welfare and mine.

2. Radio GaGa

With digital TV and streaming services like Netflix, it's easy to overlook the humble radio but since prisons are generally internet free, it really comes into its own. If you're abroad, it also may be a good way to hear English language broadcasts as the BBC World Service still transmits on shortwave throughout Africa and Asia. 

Make sure to check carefully with prison staff which models of radio are allowed e.g. Digital vs FM and which frequencies they can receive. If you're sending a radio to someone in jail, make sure it either plugs in or that the prison sells the batteries it uses. 

Some jails allow a combination radio/CD player, meaning you can also listen to your favorite tunes. These days CDs sell for pennies in charity shops, making this a good buy. If you do this, make sure to check if there are limits on the number of CDs that can be sent in. Box sets are your best friend here, as they give more play time and some prisons only count them as a single CD towards your limit.

Mum says: You may also be able to help other prisoners too. Some jails allow people to donate DVD’s, which can then be uploaded to the computer system for all the prisoners to watch. Charity shops often sell DVD’s for as little as 5 for 1£. Remember to check the DVD Region before sending e.g. UK DVDs are Region 2. 

3. Games galore

You may have never played board games before going to prison but since not every jail's going to have the latest Playstation 5, it's not a bad way to pass the time.

My main game of choice was a simplified version of chess, provided by the good people of 5asideCHESS, mainly because:

  • The board and pieces are made of cardboard so can be mailed in an envelope.
  • Chess is an excellent strategy game and keeps the mind sharp.
  • As chess is so universal, you can play it against others, even if you don't speak the same language.
  • You can have a correspondence game of chess via letter or telephone, taking turns to move with someone on the outside as I did with my Mum. 

As I became more comfortable with other inmates, I started looking for other games to play. I discovered 'deck building' games, which are good for up to 4 players and are good fun, as there are so many card combinations. Our game of choice was Dominion but you can ask a loved one to research one that suits you.If your jail does allow regular playing cards, loved ones can help by sending in a book of different card games, so you can keep things interesting. As always, make sure to check prison rules before sending anything.

Mum says: Little things mean a lot. A visit, a letter, a phone call, an email, a gift, some cash – all can make a remarkable difference to those doing time.

4. Pondering puzzles

Whilst in prison, I found puzzles an excellent way to pass the time. If you're in a small cell, one small slip of paper containing a Sudoku, cryptic crossword or word search can give you hours of enjoyment without taking up too much space.

The other advantage of puzzles is you often find them free in magazines or newspaper, so can just clip them out. 

If you want to help someone in prison to pass the time in this way, check to see if you can send in a book of crossword, sudoku etc. The best puzzle books in my opinion contain a combination of different puzzle types. If your loved one is struggling, check if you can also send them a guide as my Mum did when I was trying to master the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword.

If books aren't allowed, see if you can just print out some puzzles from the internet (The GCHQ website has some excellent ones), then mail them in with your regular letters.

Mum says: The quizzes, puzzles and crosswords did both of us the power of good and helped us cope better with lockdown. A family friend also wrote regularly to my son with a lot of ‘Dad’ jokes, which cheered him up! Another old friend used to email him from abroad via the approved prison email service. (Check to see if this is available in your target country). It all goes to remind your loved one that there are people out there rooting for them and they are not forgotten.

5. In-cell work out

You've probably seen those movies where an inmate spends every waking minute doing situps in-cell to get a body you could crack walnuts on. The reality is you'll usually be given access to a prison gym but exercising using your own body means you can work out anywhere, plus the endorphin rush is a great cure for depression.

LJ Flanders has written an excellent guide on this subject, so our best advice is to try to borrow a copy from your prison library or have a loved one send it in.

Mum says: Inside Time, the prisoners’ magazine, provides a lot of information on topics like workouts, and it is much easier for us on the outside to follow up and find out more on their behalf. 

6. Hit the books

We've talked a little in previous posts about getting books in to pass the time but this is sometimes easier said than done. The UK government have had a long-running spat with prisons trying to ban family and friends from sending books in, as some jails tried to insist inmates could only order brand new books from approved retailers.

Our best advice is to check prison regulations on this to see if family/friends are allowed to mail books in. Failing this, make best use of your prison library and ask your family to print out information you need to include in letters. 

There are also a number of charities like "Books to Prisoners" who can mail certain books to prisoners, depending on which country you're in. Prisoners Abroad may be able to advise on which charities operate in the country where you're being held. 

Mum says: There was a very frustrating time when second hand books were not permitted because of possible drug contamination concerns, so I had to become creative! It's important to find out what the prison will allow you to send in.  Borderline Books also supply books to prisons.

When your family member or friend finishes their sentence, they will still need you to be there for them as they adjust to the outside and rebuild their life. Look forward to the future together.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?