HMP: A Survival Guide

Carl Cattermole


Carl is a 20-something Londoner who served time in some of Britain’s most notorious jails, and teamed up with illustrator Banx and Ditto Press to make a not-for-profit, no-nonsense guide to prison for prisoners and their families.



Imagine 2090 (ideally 2019, but I won’t hold my breath), kids will be doing their history GCSEs, they’ll go to the library, pick up a copy of Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis, and be like...

“wow… you know... back in the two-thousands people who did something stupid and just needed a bit of help got separated from their families and sent to rat infested holes – un-be-lievable!!!”.

Are Prisons Obsolete will be the Canterbury Tales of our justice dark age. The book explains how prison is class oppression, a continuation of slavery and an imperialist profit making scheme.

Angela was a powerful black woman from Alabama: an orator, a communist and one-time FBI most wanted fugitive. I’m a white male from a crap bit of England: I’ve been on the run a couple times but I had no interest in politics before serving time in prison gave me no other choice.

Despite our perceivable differences we came to the same conclusion... Angela’s truth is something I saw with my own eyes.

In the British prison system, drugs are everywhere and education is hard to find. Cockroaches scuttle around your feet, but you can’t maintain contact with the people you love and need support from. You get distorted and drift from a society you’re supposed to become a contributing part of. The system is biased against ethnic minorities and the poor but sending someone to this place costs more than educating a kid at Eton.

Terrible for individuals, communities and tax payers... it’s inexplicable... except for the fact that PR are the first two letters of prison. Politicians win votes from being Tough On Crime And Tough On The Causes Of Crime. Votes from an electorate that haven’t seen behind bars, besides through the filter of tabloids and television, pantomime mediums where criminals are cast as the bogeyman who needs to be locked up for life.

Anyway no more downers... the nasty energy of politics and press can be converted to positive action by joining campaigns so I’m going to finish this short introduction by suggesting a few ways you can get involved if you’re angry or interested. Write or visit prisoners you know – this is so crucial. Join Reclaim Holloway, a group fighting for the ex-Holloway prison sight to be used for public good, not private profit. Bent Bars is an LGBTQ support group and their work is 10/10. And finally, read HMP – A Survival Guide... it’s 28 pages and free online. And send me an email if you want to talk more!



The OMU (offender management unit) department will decide what category of prisoner you become and subsequently what kind of prison you will end up in. There are four basic categories…

Double A-cat and A-cat prisons... Firstly, I’ve never been in one. All I know is that they are hard to break out of.

B-cat prisons in my experience are like a sorting office; most people don’t stay there for too long before they get moved on to a different prison. In a B-cat you’ll meet everyone from triple murderers waiting for extradition to bitties doing a month for stealing a packet of sausages. They are full of heroin, people doing short sentences and local riffraff so at least it’s eventful.

C-cats are basically a B-cat in the middle of nowhere with less security and less staff... so if you’re a drug addict or you use your phone all day I guess it’s an improvement but for me it was just mind numbingly boring. This is what really kills you in prison; nothing, and I mean nothing, happens. And in C-cats in particular NOTHING happens because most inmates are on a ‘progressive moves system’ so they are just trying to behave well to get their D-cat, home leave or parole.

D-cats (open prisons) in comparison you get home visits after a month, you have a key to your own cell and get your friends to throw bottles of whisky over the fence. If you’re in for a non-violent crime and have never had a drugs problem etc both you and your solicitor should write to the governor and the OMU as soon as possible asking for you to be made a D-cat prisoner.



As soon as you’ve been remanded or given a custodial sentence you’ll be bundled down in to the holding cells so make sure you go with your bags packed if there’s any chance this could happen. Every court always discharges to the same jail, so if you’re not sure where you’ll end up you can phone the court beforehand and ask them.

Next you’ll be carted off in the Serco ‘sweat box’ (those anonymous looking white prison vans that are sweaty during July, and freezing for the remaining 11 months of the year when you need to sweat about your predicament to justify the title) with things like AGRESIV GAV OV BRUM scratched into the blacked-out windows, on your way to jail ready to give her majesty pleasure. They’ll lock the van in the security lock gates, shine a torch into your compartment and count you only as a number. Welcome to prison!

You’ll get herded to a processing area, into a box full of twitching junkies enduring nasty cold turkey and nut-jobs asking you what you’re in for... it feels like you’re in the waiting room for the next departure to Hades. Some bakedbeanhead screw will then call you by your surname, you’ll be processed, photographed, told what you can and largely can’t have, stripped naked then told to bend over and cough, given a light blue t-shirt and scratchy grey tracksuit and moved on to the ‘first night wing’. You should be allowed to make a free phone call, although it’s hardly worth it as it lasts literally a minute. By this point you will have already been asked for a ‘burn’ (prisonish for cigarette) about 150 times. People will probably be looking you up and down trying to assess you. Don’t be worried (or at least don’t show it), don’t be pumped up, don’t be wet, you’ll be ok... it gets easier and easier from this point in.

Over the fortnight if the prison is doing it’s job (unlikely) you’ll do ‘induction’. They’ll explain to you how to go about ‘kit change’ (getting ‘clean’ bed sheets and clothes), how to get to the library, how to fill in 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, etc etc. Whatever you do don’t even admit to having smoked weed 10 years ago… they’ll treat you as a ‘user’ and put you on weekly ‘mandatory drug testing’ for the rest of your sentence.

In the first week you’ll be entitled to a ‘reception visit’ that requires no V.O. (visiting order). Whoever it is can just call and book a visit to come and see you, they’ll just need your date of birth and full name.

You’ll also get £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. Phone numbers have to be approved by the prison and added to your permitted numbers list before you are allowed to ring them though. This can take an unreasonably long time (a fortnight or more) so bare this in mind.

The system will come as a shock to your own... you’ll be astounded at how inefficient prisons are, how many mobile phones and drug parcels get 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 such huge ones for crimes against capital, how many reformed offenders are rotting away on indeterminate sentences 5 years past their release date, and how bitties smoke teabags wrapped in bible pages when they’ve run out of cigarettes.



90% of conversations in jail revolve around bitching about screws and discussing Match Of The Day which is understandable when you’re surrounded by white-washed walls, the same few faces with the same few stories and little else. This lack of stimulus can result in the torturous over-thinking of the most minor soundbite from a phone call or sentence in a letter for weeks. It’s nasty and can lead to all types of neurosis you wouldn’t be a part of if you were in the outside world or had something to distract you. When you’re under lock and key the only place you can escape to is inside your head. Television is the escapism of choice for most prisoners and becomes a surrogate family for too many. After your door is locked at 5pm it’s straight Neighbours – Simpsons – Eastenders – Corrie – Enders pt2 – Brookside channel ping-pong until lights out. I watched a bit of TV but I felt like books offered so much more escapist potential. I had hardly read since I left school but by the time I got released I’d got through almost every classic on the bookshelf. Not only was this a genuine distraction from the neurosis I mentioned before but I came out feeling sharper than ever.



Prisons have a budget of £1.85 per day per prisoner so you can imagine how the food is going to taste. You’ll fill in a menu sheet at the beginning of every week and at 11.30 am and 4pm every day go with your baby blue plastic plate and plastic knives and forks to get served a mix of gritty burgers, over boiled beans, rice that tastes like disinfectant and quadruple microwaved chicken that tastes like wood. Try to to get friendly with someone who works in the kitchen; they’ll bring you onions, herbs, pepper and spices that’ll liven it up a bit. The last two are disallowed in most jails though because people used to blow it in screws eyes. I used to laugh to myself when I was stashing black pepper like it’s some kind of class-a drug but these are the kind of stupid situations prison puts you in.

You can make some simple recipes from the bits available on the canteen to make the prison grub slightly more edible. Here are a few suggestions...

Instant Noodles with Tuna: A prison staple... the best meal you’ll get inside. Order both off the canteen.

Baked Beans on toast: This is a personal favourite of mine. You take a kettle lead, strip it down, connect it to a can of beans, (I don’t know much about electrics all that I know is that this is highly dangerous so don’t blame me if you hurt yourself) and turn on the power... after about three minutes they’ll be nicely warmed. To make toast you need to wrap bread in a piece of newspaper and stick it on the hot pipes for 5 minutes.

Kettle Curries and Dumplings: Yardies, Africans and all the Asian guys cook malodorous curries, mackerel stews and dumplings in their kettles. You too can have a curry night in your cell if you buy all the right bits off of canteen.



Prison has a whole ‘justice’ system of it’s own. If you get nicked for anything, whether it’s having a phone, brewing hooch, fighting or whatever it may be, you’ll end up in front of a governor. This is called an ‘adjudication’. You can be given anything from a week suspension of canteen to months down the block (solitary confinement) or extra months on your sentence if it’s particularly serious. They can also put you on closed visits where you’re separated from your family by a big plate of glass. Prison law is like normal law, you have a right to legal representation and if you don’t take it the governor (who serves as a judge) will take you for an idiot and do you over. Do not pass up the chance of legal representation, however minor your charge. The library holds all procedural information and, in my experience, they were very helpful. This might entail reading through a whole page of mindnumbing legal drear but once you’ve found out that the screws didn’t follow some little guideline and you’re case gets thrown out, trust me you’ll be very happy.



MDTs are a joke. Not only did their introduction in the early 90s encourage the use of heroin (heroin clears out of your system in 24 hours, weed takes up to 30 days) but they are also easily swerveable; when everyone finds out the MDT unit are on the wing it’s comedy the way everyone skidaddles back to their cell in a very obvious fashion to drink two litres of water, then passes with flying colours despite the fact you seen them smoking ‘bobby’ (Bobby Brown = Heroin, Barry White = Crack) on the landing only last night. MDTs catch you smoking weed and that’s about it. If you fail an MDT you’ll have an adjudication. By the way you should avoid taking any drugs that you haven’t been prescribed; a friend of mine borrowed cocodamol from his friend for his toothache, had an MDT a couple days later, tested positive for opiates and ended up having his television taken away and getting put on various compulsory drug treatment courses as punishment.



To be honest, the moment of freedom was totally underwhelming because I’d spent every waking hour building it up in my head. They just called my name one day and deposited me outside the gate somewhere on an industrial estate in the Midlands with forty quid, a prison issue bin bag full of clothes and a train ticket back home. For a lot of people £40 buys 40 cans of beer or some smack; I guess a weekend of getting trashed is a quick-fix substitute for real rehabilitation.

Prison’s legacy for me, aside from still being refused jobs and still being uninsurable, wasn’t an affiliation to the Crips or Aryan Brotherhood or whatever stupid stuff people hear about jail from the movies: it was alienation from the outside world and an inability to communicate. I’d spent SO much time locked up inside my own head that I had to learn everything again, including how to be myself. I felt warped and self-conscious, raw but dulled, aggressive and coldhearted but at the same time vulnerable. I felt disconnected from myself – and the girl I had been in love with. Luckily I didn’t have kids like many inmates do.

It would’ve been good if people had asked me more questions but they were either scared to probe or didn’t know where to go beyond asking ‘so… err… how was it?’, they wanted to know about the fights and the gore but maybe didn’t even consider the emotional disconnection. It’s good for the people close to you to ask as many questions as possible in order to give you the chance to unpack your emotions and understand the experience you just went through. It’s hard for British people and especially those who’ve just come from an environment where you wear a mask 24/7 to be open about emotions in this way but it’s necessary if you want to reconnect with your friends, family and erstwhile self.

On your way out don’t forget to remind the screws that you’ve done your time but they are doing a life sentence. If you’ve got outstanding complaints follow them up. Write to me, tell me about your experience and anything you have to add to this guide. If you enjoyed it please like this on Facebook, Tweet it or share it with your friends. Consider joining prisoner support projects such as London ABC and Action For Prisoners and Offenders Families, or contribute your time to the Howard League or the Prison Reform Trust.

And if you’re going to commit a crime, utilise your newfound criminal mastery that you learnt in jail and don’t get caught. But more than anything enjoy and value your freedom!


Extracts from HMP: A Survival Guide by Carl Cattermole, used with kind permission of the author.

Read more and purchase the full guide at for £4 - all proceeds go back into prisoner support.

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