This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Most people’s greatest fear about going to prison is heading into the unknown. Unless you’re a repeat offender, you have no idea what awaits you inside the prison walls, and no way of knowing whether it’s a "vacation camp," as the media sometimes suggest, or a hell hole, which the same outlets also claim it is. One of the main sources of uncertainty is cellmates. Those awaiting prison are left wondering whether they’ll end up sharing a cell with someone who, despite his criminality, is chilled and easy to get along with, or totally unpredictable. It’s all down to the luck of the draw.
Contrary to the popular belief that inmates are in with the same cellmate for their entire time inside, prisoners can actually share with up to 20 different people throughout the course of a short-to-medium-length sentence. Convicts are regularly moved to other jails, or taken away to attend court appearances, leaving an empty bed to be filled. I wanted to find out about the impact of being forced to share a tiny room with someone you’d prefer not to live with, so I got in touch with some ex-`cons and asked them to describe their worst cellmates. I spoke to reformed armed robber Jack Hill; Shaun “English Shaun” Attwood, who was imprisoned in the US for drugs offenses; Leslie Abrokwaa, who was jailed for firearms possession and attempted robbery before turning his life around and gaining a place at Cambridge; and ex-street robber Tommy. Here’s what they had to say.
Jack Hill, served 14 months, armed robbery
Jack Hill enjoying a beer after his release
I was sharing a cell with a guy who was in for assaults on ambulance staff while drunk and disorderly. He was ex-service and had PTSD. One day, shortly after Lord of the Rings had been on TV, we got into a discussion about elves. He said, “Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien invented the entire concept of elves?” Obviously, that isn’t true, so I said, “He didn’t invent the entire concept. He just invented the specific elves in Lord of the Rings and made up a language for them.” My cellmate’s immediate response to that was “Shut that fucking cell door!” I knew that this meant he wanted a fight, so I said, “OK.” There was then quite a bit of violence. While I was turning around after shutting the door, he ran at me and put his hands around my throat. He then proceeded to throttle me and punch me while shouting, “You’re wrong!”
The entire wing was gathered outside the cell by this point, trying to look through a tiny slit in the door. My cellmate beat the shit out of me until he eventually got tired and stopped. I was concussed, and my head was busted up. I also had bruises on my throat but saw it as a victory because I hadn’t backed down, I knew I was right, and he’d had to resort to violence because he couldn’t think of a proper argument. After it had all calmed down, my cellmate was unwilling to talk about what had happened. He seemed more messed up by it than I was. He was never the same with me after that.
Shaun Attwood, served six years in Arizona prison, drug dealing
My worst cellmate was a notorious home invader and torturer. Before going to prison, he’d been into kidnapping drug dealers and taking hammers to their kneecaps. He didn’t want me in with him because it was my first time in prison, and I wasn’t an experienced inmate. We were also a bit of an odd match. His hobbies included smoking crystal meth, shooting up heroin, and doing illegal prison tattoos, whereas I spent most of my free time in the cell reading and writing.
On the night I moved in, my new cellmate said, “I’ve got a padlock in a sock. I can smash you with it while you’re sleeping and kill you whenever I want.” He didn’t want to attack me directly, though, because he’d recently been in trouble and didn’t want to bring any more heat his way. He’d been done for holding a kangaroo court for a sex offender, which ended up with the alleged rapist being stabbed tons of times. In order to avoid getting in any more shit with the guards, he got a 280-pound Aryan Brotherhood member to attack me while I was on my way to a visit.
I got back to my cell after the visit, and my cellmate was high on meth, acting crazy, and showing me the padlock that he was going to smash my skull in with. I eventually had to get my mom to contact the British embassy and get them to contact the prison to get me moved because I was scared for my life. Fortunately, she managed to do so without letting on that my cellmate had been threatening me, so I avoided being called a snitch. It was an extremely stressful experience that should be a warning to anyone who considers breaking the law.
Leslie Abrokwaa, served three and a half years, armed robbery
One of my cellmates didn’t have the best hygiene and didn’t shower very often. I had to keep confronting him about it because that kind of thing really affects you when you’re stuck in a confined space with someone. Some people in prison don’t wash very often and just use deodorant instead. After a few days, the smell builds up and gets pretty bad.
The guy was on remand at the time, and his trial was still ongoing. I think he was stressed out about his case and had let himself go a bit. I told him, “Look, I’ve got to live in here with you. If you were in a cell by yourself, then you could do what you want, but there’s two of us in here. You’ve got to figure this out.” He eventually got the message and started washing. We actually got along well apart from that, but obviously, when someone isn’t taking any showers, they aren’t going to be good to live with.
Tommy, sentences totaling 29 months, numerous offenses
My worst cellmate wasn't the worst because he was a bad guy; it was because of how someone else treated him. He was a weak guy who got bullied. The dude in the cell next door was fucking evil—and I don’t usually call people evil. He hated this kid, and used to stay up all night banging things and threatening him. It was weird because he we putting himself at risk, with everyone telling him to shut the fuck up, but he kept on doing it just to scare my cellmate. The bully would come out of his cell in the morning with big, black rings round his eyes from not sleeping, but didn’t care as long as he could torment the poor fucker. Obviously, my cellmate was stuck there and couldn’t get away; he just had to take it. It eventually got too much for him, and he killed himself. Yeah, that was the worst cellmate.
Thanks to Jack, Shaun, Leslie, and Tommy for taking the time to share their experiences. Tommy has been involved with a film about prison and criminal justice since being released. Shaun regularly vlogs about the US prison system. Follow Nick Chester on Twitter.