We spoke to four ex-cons to find out how it feels to go from the outside to the inside.
Top photo by Bob Jagendorf via Wikipedia
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
British prisons are pretty unpleasant places, as myriad reports and the recent spate of riots in prisons across the country will attest to. One report, released at the end of 2016, found that a "toxic mix of violence, death, and human misery" has led to record numbers of suicides, with one in every 840 inmates killing themselves. Ten percent of suicides take place within the first three days of imprisonment, with the HM Inspectorate of Prisons acknowledging that the first day inside can have a major influence on the likelihood of suicide or self-harm.
I wanted to find out precisely what makes that initial 24 hours so daunting, so I asked four ex-cons to describe the day they entered the prison system in their own words. I spoke to former London gangsters Jason Cook and Paul Murdoch; Rob Butler, who was jailed for tax evasion; and Terry Daniels, who was remanded after being falsely accused of terrorist offenses. Here's what they had to say.
The first time I went to prison was after being caught with an ounce of cannabis. The guards didn't offer any help or advice; they just barked orders at me and slammed my door shut. I was put in a cell containing a very dirty mattress, a blocked toilet, and a green cover that someone had torn strips out of to make lines. A "line" is a strip of fabric that is attached to objects so that they can be swung out of the window and passed from cell to cell. I had no pillow, there was no heating, and there were cockroaches scurrying around the floor.
I rang the buzzer on my cell door to try and get a guard's attention, so he could get the toilet unblocked for me, and was told, "Don't fucking ring the bell unless it's an emergency." I said "It is! My toilet's blocked, and I don't have a pillow." The guard laughed and said, "Welcome to prison, son. This ain't a fucking hotel. You'll end up in the block if you buzz for no reason again." The "block" is jail slang for the segregation unit, where they put prisoners who disobey the rules.
The hardest thing was dealing with all the time stuck in the cell. It took me a good four months to get used to that. I felt as if it was driving me mad at first. Listening to everyone shouting through the bars was also bad.
The first time I went to adult prison was for aggravated burglary with intent to cause GBH [grievous bodily harm]. I'd been to youth prison as a teenager, and wasn't as worried as I'd been during my first day there, but was still quite concerned about the fact you had to go to the toilet in a bucket and slop out each day. I didn't like the thought of that at all.
I knew a few of the inmates on the wing through other people, which was good because prisoners who don't know anyone are more at risk of being victimized or attacked. Almost immediately the other inmates asked me lots of questions about what I was in for. I was a little bit scared of being around murderers and people who had committed serious crimes, but wore a mask of confidence, because you can't show weakness in prison.
My first meal inside was lukewarm and the portions were very small. I remember there being lumpy potatoes with black bits in them. It was how I'd imagined prison food to be. All things considered, that first day was bad, but could have been worse if I hadn't already known some people.
Related: Watch 'Young Reoffenders,' our documentary about a group of young men in the UK trapped in a cycle of imprisonment and reoffending.
When I first arrived at the prison, it was how I thought it was going to be—intimidating and rough-looking. Funny as it sounds, though, I had actually been looking forward to starting my sentence because there had been a long gap between getting arrested and going to jail, and I wanted to get it out of the way. That meant I didn't see my first day as being as bad as some other people might have viewed it.
The guards were very authoritarian. They quickly told us the rules, but didn't spend much time making sure we knew what was what. I referred to one of them as "mate" and he said, "Don't call us 'mate.' We're not your mates." I'm Scouse, and it's part of our natural language to call everyone "mate," so it was actually quite hard to stop.
I soon bumped into a few people I knew from the outside, which made it a bit easier to settle in. I got asked a lot of questions by the other inmates about my crime, and the fact that I was only in for tax evasion seemed to work in my favor. It wasn't a bad crime compared to some of the other things that people were in for, so no one could really take exception to me because of it. There were actually lots of good people inside who had just made mistakes, and I soon settled in.
The first time I was imprisoned in the UK happened after I gave the key to my house in Northern Ireland to someone so that he could look after the place for me while I was visiting family. Without my knowledge, he'd used it to store a bomb and a gun. I'd been remanded before in Spain after being falsely accused of another crime, which I eventually received a pardon for. As you might have gathered, I'm not the luckiest of people.
I was a lot more scared during my first day inside in Northern Ireland than I'd been in Spain. Northern Ireland has much more of an edge to it. Before being taken to my cell, the guards confiscated all items of clothing that could potentially be viewed as containing sectarian symbols. That included anything blue, as the color blue can be used to signify Protestantism. That left me with hardly anything remaining, as most of my clothes were blue.
When I landed on the wing, I was appalled to find out that I was the only Protestant. I'm also English, and a lot of Northern Irish Catholics hate the English. I found it difficult to understand some of the thick Belfast accents, and was confused by the prison jargon the inmates and guards used. Some of the other prisoners had committed horrific crimes, including one girl who had cut someone's head off. Overall, my first day inside was extremely frightening and daunting.
Cook, Murdoch, and Butler are now reformed characters. Cook has written a book about his criminal days, Murdoch now works for anti-crime organization Directions Project, and Daniels has released a memoir about her time inside.
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