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A Survival Guide for Future Prisoners

United Kingdom
by Carl Cattermole Nov 16, 2011
Carl Cattermole spent three years in a British prison, and wants you to know what he knows–just in case.


What a strange place: society’s cupboard full of crooks, a whole world of mystery, misery, and myths. What’s even more strange is that I feel as though I still dont understand it despite having spent nearly a year there.

Maybe my mind blocks it all out for self-preservation purposes. It’s not as though I had a rough time, but spending such a long in a single cell filters through into the lowest layers of your subconscious. You become less socially competent, less confident, more pensive and introverted.

So I decided to write about what I DO know, in order to help those who know even less than myself. And that can be the most daunting part about prison: waiting for trial, being on bail, the great unknown. How much truth is contained in the ‘dont drop the soap’ maxim? Will you wither away on a diet of sawdust and grizzly grey porridge, or will you arrive on the wing and be eaten alive by lumpen-savages?

No. You wont. More likely, the pre-prison anxiety will eat you from the inside out, and this is a large but under-acknowledged part of the prison system and its function.

This is where I hope to help people and at the same time pull the rug out from beneath the ineffective justice systems feet. I’ve written a book called HMP – A Survival Guide; it’s a grit-and-all how-to with personal anecdotes–like a “Lonely Planet for the clink”–and it’s written in a style designed to be digestible for those who most need it. Best of all: it’s totally free. Check it out online at

The following has been reprinted from Carl’s free publication, H.M. Prison Service, A Survival Guide, with minor edits.


As soon as you’ve been remanded or found guilty you’ll be bundled down in to the holding cells, so make sure you go with your bags packed. Every court always discharges to the same jail so if you’re not sure about where you’ll end up you could just phone the court beforehand and ask them. Oh yeah, and make sure you’ve cancelled any regularly occurring monthly charges or you’ll come out with a maxed out overdraft.

Provided you’re not given an indeterminate or life sentence, you only serve the first half of your sentence inside. The last third of this half though you may be eligible for tag (HDC). The second half of your sentence you’ll spend on licence (see the “Returning To The Real World” section for more on licence). To be honest, there are so many exceptions to this I’m not going to write them all down, I just want you to know that if the judge gives you two years, for example, it doesn’t actually mean two years behind bars.

Next you’ll be carted off in the Serco van, rattling down the road in a tiny cubicle with things like AGRESIVE DAN OV BRUM scratched into the paintwork on your way to whatever jail, ready to give her majesty pleasure (sounds pretty unappealing doesn’t it?). They’ll stop you at the security lock gates, some guy shining a torch into your little compartment, counting you as a number. Welcome to prison!

You’ll get herded into a processing area, a box full of twitching bitties going cold turkey and nutjobs asking you what you’re in for. It kind of feels like you’re waiting for the next departure to Hell. Some baked bean screw will then call you by your surname, you’ll be processed, photographed, given a number that you keep for life, told what you can and can’t have, stripped naked, given some scratchy clothes and moved on to the ‘first night wing’.

By this point you will have already been asked for a ‘burn’ (that’s prisonish for cigarette) about 50 times. People will probably be looking you up and down trying to assess you. Don’t be worried, don’t be pumped up, don’t be wet, you’ll be okay. It gets easier and easier from this point on.

Over the next week or two you’ll do ‘induction’. They’ll explain to you how to go about ‘kit change’, library, meal slips and all the rest. At some point you’ll be further assessed and they’ll ask you all the usual; are you suicidal, do you have violent antecedents, do you take drugs. Whatever you do, don’t even admit to having smoked weed in the past or they’ll treat you as a ‘user’ and put you on weekly ‘mandatory drug testing’ for the rest of your sentence.

Remember that in the first week you’ll be entitled to a ‘reception visit’ which requires no V.O. (visiting order). This means that anyone can just phone up and book a visit to come and see you; they’ll just need your birthdate and full name. You’ll also get a £2 phone credit to start you off, and a pin number to use the phone. Make sure you don’t lose this and keep it to yourself.

The system will come as a shock to you. You’ll be astounded at how inefficient prisons are, how much stuff gets thrown over the fence and how preventable it is, how little support is given to illiterate people and drug users when this would quite obviously reduce their likelihood of reoffending; how many people are serving such small sentences for crimes against people and how others are serving huge ones for crimes against capital; how many reformed offenders are rotting away on indeterminate sentences five years past their release date, and how bitties smoke teabags wrapped in Bible pages when they’ve run out of cigarettes.

If you’re feeling hard done-by I’d recommend reading Papillion by Henri Charriere. It’s a really fucked up autobiographical story about going to prison in a French penal colony, getting parasites, getting shot, and years in solitary confinement in a cell that fills up to your neck with water for five hours a day. Trust me, it’ll make you feel like you have nothing to worry about!

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