Carl Cattermole, author of HMP: A Survival Guide in his jail cell
Prisons in the UK are at breaking point; full to the brim with nonces, murderers, rapists and people whose crimes are so repulsive and inhumane that no one's allowed to know what they are yet for fear of inspiring copycats. Or so the authorities would have you believe. I'm not saying there's a society-wide conspiracy to make prisons seem like hell-portals, but the book ex-lag Carl Cattermole has just finished writing – titled simply HMP: A Survival Guide – goes some way to dispelling a lot of the myths surrounding prison life.
Carl's book says that prison isn't one long, relentlessly violent holiday at her Majesty's pleasure, and that you'd find more aggro in a provincial town on a Friday night. He also offers recipes for making your own salad dressing from scratch, home brewing hooch and, crucially, dealing with the pain of being away from a partner for months or years on end. If you're a heroin addict and you want to avoid being caught during a Mandatory Drug Test (MDT), or just someone who dabbles in low-level crime and fears the imminent or eventual long arm of John Law, Carl's guide makes for essential reading.
I am neither of these things, but called him up for a chat anyway.
VICE: Hey Carl. How come you ended up in prison?
Carl Cattermole: I spent a year behind the wall in various prisons across the south of England.
Some trivial bullshit.
OK. How did you feel when you were sentenced?
It's pretty surreal being in the dock at a Crown Court, listening to your sentence being read out. It feels like you're watching some kind of TV drama in POV.
Was there anything that you did personally before you went in? How did you mentally prepare yourself?
I didn't analyse it too much at the time. I thought it was best to just get on with it.
Were you given any advice before you went in?
I talked in depth to a friend who'd just come out from serving a couple of years. He told me what to take, how I should act, what to expect. It was incredible; it made the whole experience about a hundred times easier. That's what inspired me to write the book. Hopefully it will help others in a similar way.
Describe your first experiences of prison life.
Waiting in the processing box talking to some guy whose two loves were the fight against capitalism and Millwall FC. He'd been arrested for pulling the 'S' off the Shell centre sign near Waterloo station.
How do you cope with being in such close proximity to people who have little regard for other human beings, or have no desire to be on the outside?
There's the occasional misanthrope, but generally speaking there's a lot of compassion between inmates. Screws are the ones who have little regard for you. They are complete cunts. They'll lie to you, steal your shit, and generally just try to fuck your situation up even more than it already is. Take this for example; one of my mates is sat in the visiting room with his wife, a screw who has had a minor grievance with him comes up and says: "Where's the blonde one? She was much fitter". Totally malicious. The screw obviously knows how hard it is to maintain a relationship in jail, and my mate's wife is paranoid anyway. It queers the whole visit and he spends the next fortnight trying to convince her that he hasn't been two-timing her. That's just one example... I could write a whole book on the subject of vindictive screws alone.
You appear to have picked up some kitchen skills from your time in jail, what with the learning how to make your own salad dressing and hooch and all that. Was it just one person who taught you this, and is that knowledge available to everyone in jail or just the privileged few?
These are things that you just pick up along the way, but you never, never want to ask too many questions lest you sound wet behind the ears. So hopefully the basic knowledge I've included in the booklet will give people a leg up.
According to the booklet, D-Category jails are like the Promised Land – how easy is it for prisoners to make it to such a place? And is there any advice you'd like to add for jailbirds to make it to a D-Cat prison?
The difference between C-Category and D-Category jails is vast, it's worth doing anything you can to get in one; pre-empt the decision of the OMU [Offender Management Unit] by writing to them and have your solicitor do the same. But if not, then fuck it: smoke weed, refuse your piss tests and go on basic, because the difference between B and C is so minimal.
The media seems to have this contradictory relationship with prison life. They're happy to spin horror stories about what goes on in there, but then they love to make it out as being 'soft' on offenders, too. What's your take on the whole debate? Is it as bad as people may think, or is it a walk in the park?
It can be both. Everyday life can be a walk in the park, so long as you behave in a certain way; the hard part is when you've spent a year away from your friends and family, you've lost certain skills and possibly your house and your girlfriend, then you're spat back out on the street with a discharge grant of £43 and told to behave or else. The other horror story that needs attention is IPP sentencing – that's 'Indeterminate Public Protection' sentencing, which means that you are judged fit for release upon your behaviour in prison. One guy I knew in there got an 18-month IPP sentence for threatening to rob someone and now he's looking to serve nine years because he got caught brewing hooch. It's crazy. The thing is, prisoners' rights aren't going to win politicians as many votes as 'appearing tough on crime' is, so it's unlikely that the prison population will decrease anytime soon.
Carl looking pretty chill in prison
What's the worst thing you saw in jail?
Vulnerable people getting minor sentences for things they really shouldn't have been imprisoned for, picking up a heroin habit because they couldn't cope with it, and subsequently being in and out of jail for the rest of their lives. The amount of heroin in British jails is fucking mental. What else? Screws throwing away peoples' appeal applications. Violence-wise, I guess it was a 30-man all-out brawl.
If you ever ended up back in prison, what would you do differently?
I'd not put my girlfriend through the same shit again. I'd probably cut the relationship off and rebuild it once I was back out.
Were there any positives about being in jail?
I read almost every classic on the bookshelf. I sharpened up my mind and refocused it on what I want to do with my life. I also met a handful of amazing people who I'm still in regular contact with.
Where do I start? Bacon Bitty, this guy who was in jail for stealing bacon. He got released, and on the way back home got arrested for stealing another packet of bacon. There was a Yardie I knew who had an all-in-one denim jump suit with 500 euro notes printed all over it. One of my best friends in there was serving 20 years for running the most complex drugs laboratory ever discovered in Europe, he was fucking funny. He'd roll around the wing forcing all the rudeboys to listen to Miles Davis and Flaming Lips (jail is just wall-to-wall Giggs and happy hardcore) and showing them photos of him eating magic mushrooms off elephant dung in Nepal.
When did the idea for the booklet come about? And why make it?
People's vicarious view of prison, the horror stories and the myths, serve a purpose for the state. So, after I was released, I decided the most effective way to piss on this bonfire and avenge the fruitless and unconstructive injustice that prison is for most people was to decode the whole experience so that people could see that it was actually totally manageable. I took a lot of influence from Mark Barnsley, who wrote similar pamphlets but from a much more extreme anarchist standpoint, Klaus Viehmann who wrote about surviving prison in Germany, and my friend Andrew, who, as I mentioned before, helped me before I was sentenced.
Did you write the whole thing alone or did you have help from other jailbirds?
Other than the short section by my partner, it was all written by me.
How did you go about putting it together?
A lot of help from friends and a lot of InDesign/ Photoshop/ website ballache.
What's your ultimate aim with the booklet?
In the future I'd like people to contribute to it or create their own version, so it becomes more consummate than just my own story; at the very least I'd like to add guides for young offenders and those serving longer sentences. In the meantime, I'd just like to reach as large an audience as possible and help the inmates of the future with what will potentially be the hardest experience of their lives. Distribution is the problem, which is why I'd like to encourage people to spread the word of this booklet as far and wide as possible.
What do you think about the help that's handed out by the authorities to first-time inmates?
It's bullshit. They're supposed to put you through an induction course but they never do. It's a joke. Any information they do give you is totally sanitised and useless.
Now that you're out, have you found your behaviour has changed at all?
Yeah, my behaviour has changed; I'm much, much better at committing more serious crimes.
No, I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding if you're reading this, probation officer. If I have changed at all, it's because prison only served to exacerbate and justify my hate for the system.
Any last words?
Prison is a life experience. It's totally manageable. Read HMP: A Survival Guide, it's totally free, and spread the word to anyone who might benefit from it.
All expectant or aspirational jailbirds should download their FREE copy of HMP: A Survival Guide from prisonism.co.uk