Back in 2011, Carl Cattermole was fresh out of prison and determined to do something positive with the experience. HMP: A Survival Guide was the result – an underground sensation and primer on how to survive your time languishing at Her Majesty's pleasure.
Now he's come out with Prison: A Survival Guide, an expanded and updated version of the original book from Penguin. With expert contributors adding their insight as female prisoners, LGBTQ inmates, youth prisoners and more, it's essential reading for anyone who's facing jail time or knows someone in incarceration.
Leave all your out-of-date prison stereotypes at the door. Prison these days is completely different to what you might expect – in their populations, their operation and their entire purpose. The prison population is very skewed towards the disadvantaged side of Britain, but inside you’ll meet everyone from privately-educated fraudsters to dangerous drivers, knife crime kids, weed dealers, squatters (it’s a crime to live in an empty house), and a huge number of drug addicts and mentally ill people.
Eighty thousand people from different backgrounds are coping in 80,000 different ways in 150 institutions governed by national rules, local rules and often multiple contradictory rules for the same thing: the kind of rules you’ve seen broken a million times suddenly get dropped on you if a staff member woke up on the wrong side of bed. For an institution whose middle name is rules, you’ll be amazed. The inconsistencies are so extreme that I’ve invented an acronym – C.R.A.P., or Confusing Rules Applied Patchily (the prison service, like most public authorities, love cranky acronyms, so this is a tribute).
You’ll step off the bus all wide-eyed. Nineteenth-century prisons look like dilapidated castles, 20th-century prisons look like broken down leisure centres, and 21st-century prisons look like Amazon storage warehouses. You’ll see big walls, black and white uniforms, one thousand CCTV cameras and ten thousand pigeons – sounds like I’m describing an average British high street – but understand, the physical appearance makes up only a small part of the psychological control that prison is designed to have over you. I’ll say it straight up so you know what you’re dealing with: prison is like a monsoon designed to wash away your humanity. These first couple hours in jail are one of the strongest downpours.
You’ll be herded to a processing area. Believe me that holding cell is a cocktail of brittle egos at their lowest low. Might be a couple of addicts going through cold turkey puking their guts out, a couple of boys in their ‘not-guilty suits’ crying their eyes out, a few loose cannons hungry for hierarchy and ready to victimise the ‘fraggles’ and a good few people totally used to this, like going to jail is easier for them than going to the supermarket. That room is like the waiting room for hell, but hold tight.
A screw will call you by your surname and you’ll get processed: you’ll be weighed, given a prison number you’ll have assigned to you for life, then your belongings will be listed on your property card and you’ll be told what you can have (‘IP’ – Property In Possession) and largely can’t have (‘stored property’). Keep a very close eye on exactly what you have in your prop; I had various bits mysteriously disappear, from CDs to my best shirts and brand new trainers that were sent in from outside.
You’ll have your photo taken – vain criminals (me) know you have to fix up for the mugshot because that’s how you’ll forever be remembered. Convicted males get given a scratchy grey tracksuit and pale blue t-shirt, and everyone gets a blue plastic plate and bowl, a plastic knife and fork, mint-green prison issue bed sheets and a dirty orange blanket that has collected dust and pubes from the last decade. You’ll also get a ‘starter pack’ containing milk, tea and sugar. Prisons used to provide basic toiletries (little sachets of greasy shower gel, disposable razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes) but in many institutions you now have to buy these things out of your own pocket; lots of people spend the few quid they have on drugs or instant noodles so get ready for the smell of armpit-mageddon.
Then you’ll get searched like you’ve never been searched before… you’ll have to turn around, bend over and cough to make sure you have nothing ‘plugged’. Some jails now have airport-style scanners, others have the BOSS (Body Orifice Security Scanner) chair. If they think you’re hiding something, you’ll be sent straight to the block while they wait for you to do what you’ve got to do.
You will also see a nurse. They have ten minutes flat to process your entire life through a series of tick boxes on their PC. Self-harm? Drugs? Suicide risk? Allergies? Telling them you’re a smoker even if you’re not is a good plan – prison is like Scrapheap Challenge, take what you can, whenever it’s offered. On the other hand, don’t even admit to having smoked weed as a kid – like I said, never be honest with a dishonest system. The nurse also selects who gets a single cell and who doesn’t – best believe this is a very big deal. Prisoners will be huffing and puffing around, saying, "I’M A PSYCHO, I SWEAR" and "WATCH WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF I DON’T GET A SINGLE CELL", while the nurse barely looks up at them. Saying you’re a bed wetter used to get you a single cell but not any more since jails are completely overcrowded. Your best chance of getting a single cell is to tell them you’re hearing voices telling you to strangle your cellmate… There are long-term implications to trying that route so I wouldn’t recommend it.
You might get moved off the induction wing immediately or it might take weeks for the prison to tick their boxes and find you another space in the jail. Whatever happens, the system will start to soak in and I guarantee you’ll be shocked. You’ll see how inefficient prison is, how much stuff gets thrown over the wall and how easily this could prevent it if the authorities actually wanted to. You’ll see how little support is given to illiterate people and drug users when this would stop them reoffending, how many people are rotting away on indefinite sentences when they are ready to be released, how people talk positively about overdosing because it’s their only form of escape, how people who don’t pay their TV licence get sent to this shithole and then don’t have to pay for a TV licence while they’re here, how people use ballpoint pens to write haute couture brand names on their tracksuits and smoke teabags wrapped in Bible pages lit with toilet paper and bare cables coming out a plug socket… and you’ll also see how adaptable people are and how many genuinely good-hearted people you end up meeting.
Prison: A Survival Guide is out now on Penguin for £8.99.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.