How to Survive Life in a British Prison
Some tips from a former inmate that go beyond the stereotypes of endless rapes and shankings.
"Carl Catermole" is the pseudonym of a guy who once spent a while languishing at Her Majesty's pleasure for what he describes as "some trivial bullshit". This led him to write HMP: A Survival Guide. The first edition, which came out in 2011 – the year of Carl's release – is exactly what the title sounds like: a handy book that tells you how to turn prison into a stress-free walk in the park. It gave any prospective jail-birds vital advice, such as how to brew hooch in your cell and how to deal with being away from a partner for longer than most relationships even last. It also dispelled some myths about prison being an endless series of shankings, beatings and revenge shankings and beatings.
He's now bringing out a second edition, which he says is a more reflective look at the toll prison can take on somebody's life. I met him at a greasy spoon in Bethnal Green, East London. After I had finished admiring his HMP standard issue jeans, we ordered some food, and then he told me how prison isn't the relative piece of cake he had thought when he first got released. It's scary and horrible and scarring, but not in the violent A Prophet-type way you think.
VICE: I would definitely be really freaked out if I was about to go to prison.
Carl Catermole: I can imagine what you'd be thinking.
I'd be thinking that I'm definitely going to get beaten up and probably raped.
"Don't drop the soap."
Exactly. You're trying to inform people so they're better prepared and therefore less worried, right?
I definitely feel that before you're sent to prison, while you're on bail, you're being punished in two ways. One way is more tangible and that's bail restrictions. Mine were that I wasn't allowed to see certain friends and I wasn't allowed to use public transport. But the second way is that it suits the government for people to be thinking that prison is an Escape from New York- style island of savages who are going to rip you to shreds as soon as you walk through the door. I think most people's perception of jail is based on the most basic of characters, like Charles Bronson or Shell Dockley from Bad Girls, or any number of those facially tattooed prisoners you see on Channel 5. You're punished through lack of clarity from the prison service or whoever should be providing you with that information about the true reality of jail. That's what I'd like to prevent. And in turn, make it less of a weapon for the state.
So those stereotypes we believe – are you saying they're not true? Is jail violent?
I don't want to say it's not. I know I've got to be careful with my words because I know that some people do get raped and that's a traumatic experience for them. But I never heard of any of that.
I did see violence. Most violence happens in relation to either gang stuff or against sex offenders. If somebody's a rapist or a child abuser they'll get a kettle poured over their head. If you put sugar in a kettle, when you pour it over someone's head it increases the boiling point and melts the skin off their face. It's really nasty. That happened to someone when I was inside.
But if you follow certain codes, prison is less dangerous than your average provincial high street on a Friday night. In fact just last week someone tried to start a fight with me in a kebab shop, but I didn't have a single fight in prison. Behind the wall most people get along – they're all in the same shit ship and just want to get it over and done with.
How do these stereotypes affect people who are preparing to go to prison?
They might be doing press-ups and trying to look hard and shaving off their hair rather than thinking about cancelling bank transfers and organising stuff for their kids and thinking about how they're going to keep in touch with their friends and family. You could do both I guess. I took a stereo, I cancelled my phone contract and shaved my head.
Do you have to shave your head?
Not in a compulsory way. I always laughed at how many Essex geezers and crims there were in jail with long hair. It's kind of amazing. A surprising number of inmates have ponytails.
Is that a status thing?
It's a statement. I don't quite know what [they're stating], though. Maybe it's like ultra-hard geezers wearing salmon pink polo shirts.
Since the last edition of HMP: A Survival Guide, what's changed? How extensive an update is this?
It's a re-publication but a lot of the body of the text has changed. Plus, it's got the illustration from this guy Banx, who's from Private Eye and the FT.
How did you get him involved?
A family friend of his went to prison so he read the guide and got a lot from it. He's a highly respected cartoonist but he did it all for free. I really, really rate him for that. In fact everyone involved has done it not for profit. Ditto Press (the publisher) have done it just because they believe in it. Will Self lent his backing really early on and that's been a massive help, and I've definitely lost a lot of money over it. So go buy a hard copy from the website if you've got a spare fiver.
Why has the text changed?
I guess I changed in a way and in retrospect I've been able to see that prison was more damaging in the long term than I could identify at the time that I wrote the first edition, which was in pure anger. Now I write it in a more informed retrospect.
In what sense?
I think when you're first released from prison, there's so much going through your mind. So many more immediate things and worries than lower-level emotional scarring. You've got to find housing, you've got to rebuild relationships, you've got to get a job, you've got to act on all these plans that you've had for however many months or years you've been writing these frantic notes down. You're so consumed with everyday life when you get released. You have to reset your pace. You go from this place where time means nothing. A lot of people don't have a clock in jail. The only way you can tell the time is by listening to the different TV theme tunes ringing down the halls or the bells signalling lunch, breakfast and dinner.
So now you've got a bit more perspective on how prison affected you in the long haul.
Yeah, definitely. You spend so much time locked up in your own head that it's difficult to reconcile yourself with the person that you were before you went to prison. Everyone looks at you and expects you to be the same guy, but it's not like that at all. You've been through a really traumatic experience.
And how did that change you?
I guess sometimes I feel like I'm much more able to put on a front, which I wouldn't have been before prison. Because that's what you have to do when you're in jail. You have to put on a "not bothered" front. You can't cry in the visit room, even though you're in one of the most fucked-up situations in your life. You can't cry on the phone or express your emotions too heavily.
How has this changed the new edition? What new advice is there?
I guess in the first round, in the introduction I said that prison is nothing to worry about at all. But in the new introduction, I say that it's nothing to worry about in the ways that people normally worry about prison. But there's a lot to worry about in ways that you might have never considered.
In the "Returning to the real world" section, I talk more about how it's important to discuss what you've been through with your friends and your family and how they want to know about the hyped-up subjects like the food and the violence, but often it's a lot more psychological and what they need to talk to you about is the emotional disconnection. I think this is true for people who are in touch with their emotions, but also for hard-as-nails geezers. Everyone goes through fucked-up shit.
Is it almost the case that you should be more scared of getting out of prison than going in?
Hmmm, well... Yeah, I think so. Either way, getting out of jail isn't the end of jail for most people – 47 percent of adult prisoners and 78 percent of under-18s are reconvicted within a year of release.
What's the advice to get around that?
The carrot and stick situation is that you get more visits if you behave well. If after three months you haven't had any warnings, you can become advanced, which gives you two more visits a month and the ability to spend more on your canteen sheet. They kind of strangle you and make you abide by the rules with the threat of your interpersonal relationships being withdrawn if you don't comply. That's kind of deeply fucked.
What about people who don't have those connections in the first place?
When you're in jail, you meet people who have no support network. They're either orphans or they've been in and out of prison since they were 12 or they've got no hope. It's really brutal, the extent of people's lives.
I remember this one guy did a protest sitting on a roof of one of the units of the jail because he wasn't being provided with housing when he got out of the system, so basically he's just being ejected from jail back onto the street. He said, "What's the point in it? I'll just come back to jail, I don't even want to be released. If I'm being released back into Manchester with no flat or nothing, what's the point in releasing me?" I talked to him another day and asked about his personal situation and where he'd been in his life and what he'd done and he'd grown up in foster care, had a drug addict parent, had starting stealing at eight years old because the government hadn't made sure that his foster parents were looking after him, they were just collecting the benefits but not passing any of it on. And then he went to prison for the first time pre-youth offenders when he was 12 or 13 for stealing, went to youth offenders as soon as he got over the legal threshold, went to man's jail as soon as he got over the threshold for that. I'm sorry, but poor fucking guy. Totally screwed. How are you expected to do anything if you're treated like that? They've been treated like dirt by the system a lot of the time. I didn't know these types of people existed and you meet them everywhere in the prison system.
Something has to change. It doesn't matter about people's political allegiance – both the moral and financial arguments are blindingly obvious. It's crazy.
Do you think the situation with prisons has shifted much since the last edition?
I think the narrative and the context in what British jail is has definitely changed. It's changed for the worse. More prisons are privately owned, prisons are underfunded and understaffed and people are being locked up for days at a time and not getting exercise and not getting these things that they're legally entitled to. Prisoners are being mistreated because of budget cuts.
Do you feel any sympathy when the prison officers association goes on strike?
Really? They're quite negatively portrayed in the guide.
As long as there's a prison system, prison officers are a necessary evil. They're not good guys in general. What I say in the guide is that they will snitch you up if it helps them and they'll search your cell if you're not involved in drugs because it makes the prison look like it's clean of drugs. I got searched all the time.
Just so they could tick some kind of box?
Yeah, it's, "We searched this prison wing 20 times in one week and nothing was found." And I'm like, "Yeah, because you searched my cell five times and you searched another four people who had nothing to do with drugs. Yeah, you didn't find any drugs, but you didn't look at the guy that everyone knows is smoking brown every morning before he goes off to be a wing cleaner and gets the heroin that was thrown over the fucking fence the night before." It's so ridiculous.
Have you stayed in touch with people on the inside since you were out? Is there any involvement of those people in the edition?
I've talked to various people who've been in jail, friends who I've made inside and friends from outside who've also been in. They've collaborated with me on it. I've got a friend who did four years inside, a female prisoner. And she's going to write a women's adaptation.
What struck you about the different contributions?
No one has the same experience. It's so subjective and it depends not only on your personality, but on your height, where you're room is... It also depends on every single jail, how the staff member is feeling that day. It's a kind of combustive environment. Anything can happen on any given day. The rules change every day.
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