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How to survive a British prison

From codes of conduct to cooking bake beans prisoner style – ex-con Carl Cattermole has devised the essential prison survival guide

This is part of a series of articles on the state of the nation ahead of the seismic UK election on May 7. Check out what we demand from the next government, and don't forget to vote.

Every year 250,000 people pass through the prison system. While people are waiting for sentencing they, and their innocent family members, are sweating, losing sleep, thinking that they’re going to get grazed and abused by a 7-foot crew of lumpen savages as soon as they hit the wing.

When I was released from prison, I was angry at the system, I could’ve been punished within the community but instead I’d just spent the last year in some of the most notorious jails in Britain. A lot of it locked up 23 hours a day in a single cell. The prison system thrives on people knowing nothing and being shit scared. When I got released from prison, I figured the best way to venge the system was to let people know what it’s really like.

I smashed out a book called HMP – A Survival Guide. It’s direct, funny and eye opening. The PDF went viral online and I got my Colombian friend, who was working night-shifts cleaning an office in Canary Wharf, to photocopy it 1000 times. I stapled it together DIY and shifted it for next to nothing from various bookshops.

Fast forward a couple years and it’s rewritten, published by Ditto Press, illustrated by Banx who does cartoons for Private Eye, it’s got an encomium from Will Self and it’s being backed by one of the top law firms in the country. It’s still not-for-profit and available free online… if you want to keep your eyes circular and support this prisoner support project hard copies look great and they’re only £4. Without further ado, here are a couple key points to surviving in British prisons.


It’s called a Survival Guide but that’s probably wrongfooted you already. Prison is surprisingly OK, on a day-to-day level. If you have a sense of humor it has its golden moments: Rastas throwing full roast dinners at prison officers, prisoners queuing up to try their chirpsing technique on one very, very old female prison officer who’s frothing at the mouth with the attention she gets, one guy telling me that he bit both ears off a bailiff “because he was hungry”. On an anthropological level it’s interesting too – for example, seeing first hand young inmates converting to radical Islam – a gesture which has more to do with putting two fingers up to an Islamaphobic society that has left them by the wayside than it does with Islam in particular.

However it gets bad, really bad, on a personal level when you start to feel dismembered from your loved-ones and society in general, and on a greater level when you realise how little society has invested in certain people, how people are illiterate (and that probably plays a large part in their committing of crimes in the first place) and not even being helped to learn to read and write, and how more people leave with a drug habit than enter with one. “It’s easier to get drugs than it is to get a bar of soap” according to the chief inspector of prisons of all people.


Whilst I was inside, my girlfriend got pissed off, because she’d read something on the internet about how I was “doing a bird”. I had to explain to her that bird is prisonish for a prison sentence. Try to avoid sounding green when you hit the wing by knowing a bit of the lexicon. A few of my favourites:

Basic rider – someone who doesn’t give a shit about breaking the rules

Going on basic – regime where they confiscate your television.

Plug – to put things in your Chatham Pouch (work that one out for yourself!).

Tech – very retro-sounding slang for a mobile phone.

A shit and a shave – a sentence under a year because that’s all you have time for.

Bobby is Brown and Barry is White if you know what I mean. Bang up is when your door is closed. My favourite of all is burglars – slang for the prison security team, so called because they come to you cell and steal your favourite things.


Prison is packed with stupid, manipulative and pugnacious people. And then there are the inmates – most of them are surprisingly harmless. I never had one thing stolen by inmates, though prison staff stole the best of my possessions from my stored property.

Still you have to be careful. The most common time for ‘cell dipping’ is when a fight kicks off – everyone will run to watch the fight so a few wiley junkies will take their opportunity to dip in and out of people’s vacant cells. If you adhere to the following rules – don’t steal people’s stuff, never ever grass anyone up, don’t start taking smack, don’t be too wet but on the other hand don’t walk around like you’re Buzz Lightyear – then prison is much safer than your average provincial high street on a Friday night.


There’s a sci-fi novel called Riddley Walker where the residents of post-nuclear holocaust Kent spend their time running away from packs of dogs, trying to keep warm, and using ‘soapbar’ hash as currency. If you replace the dogs with prison officers and the hash with tobacco and tins of tuna, this is astoundingly similar to jail.

A haircut will set you back two tins of tuna, a kitchen-worker will get you some black pepper for a few cigarettes, a bag of weed will set you back two ounces of rolling tobacco, and so on. Even if you don’t smoke it’s worth having some tobacco stashed away so you can buy something if you need it.

“I have to admit I never saw anyone reading Dazed in prison but you can always be the first” – Carl Cattermole


Prisons have a budget of £1.85 per-day per-prisoner so you can imagine how the food is going to taste. Get ready for a mix of gritty burgers, over-boiled beans, rice that tastes like disinfectant and quadruple microwaved chicken that tastes like wood.

To make it slightly more edible, as I’ve already mentioned, get a kitchen worker to bring you some herbs, chilli powder and black pepper. The last two are disallowed in most jails though because people used to blow it in screw's 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 also make a few of your own creations from the weekly ‘canteen sheet’ that gives you the opportunity to buy things out of money you’ve earnt or had sent in. Here’s a couple of recipes…


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 newpaper and stick it on the hot pipes for 5 minutes.


* take an empty ketchup bottle

* two parts sunflower oil from a can of tuna

* one part vinegar given out in sachets or available on canteen

* mix in lots of mixed herbs, pepper, salt, chili sauce, mustard or brown sauce

* shake well and that’s that


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 rice, fish and curry powder!


On one hand you’re locked inside this cryogenic ice cube while your social groups, loved ones and culture move on without you. On the other hand your mind is running like a ratchety hamster stuck on a wheel. There’s not much to keep you mentally stimulated among the white-washed walls and the same few faces telling the same few stories every day. If you don’t keep yourself occupied you can be privy to all types of neuroses. Television is the escapism of choice 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 felt like books offered a lot more escapist potential than TV. I hadn’t read since Roald Dahl days but I ended up shredding every classic on the bookshelf, from Kafka to the Quran.


To state the obvious, who you share a cell with, especially when you’re banged up 23 hours a day, will have a massive impact on your existence. I shared with eyebrowless Russians who didn’t speak a word of English besides racist insults, a grumpy old bank robber who just farted and smoked fags on the bunk below me all day, and for one night only a crackhead going cold turkey, shitting and puking all night in the toilet situated just at the end of the bed. If you want to get a single cell you have a few options… actually be a psycho, stage a fight if you have nothing to lose, or tell them you’re a bedwetter – no-one wants to share a bunkbed with a bedwetter. But if not it’s a good idea to share with someone you get along with. One way to find like-minded prisoners is a technique my friend calls ‘Guardian Cell Mates’. Find the the inmate who distributes all the newspaper and magazines and ask them who orders the same type of thing as you. Go and find them and make a friend. I have to admit I never saw anyone reading Dazed in prison, but you can always be the first.


Freedom can be harder to deal with than prison. Maybe my next project should be called Freedom – A Survival Guide. Personally I found it 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 (the standard amount they give you on release), a prison issue bin bag full of clothes and a train ticket back home.

For a lot of people, that £40 buys 40 cans of beer or some smack: I guess a weekend of getting trashed is a quick-fix substitute for real rehabilitation. I remember how incredible food and milk tasted, how good it was to hear a phone ring, how light doors felt, how fast trains and cars moved, how sci-fi the internet was… and how quickly I got complacent about all these amazing things. Freedom takes a long time to seep into your mindset – it doesn’t just happen the moment you walk out of jail. After being fed, clothed, given a place to sleep and a rigid structure you cant help but be institutionalised. Jail takes your responsibilities, or lack of them, away from you – I guess that’s what people who have an addiction problem or have grown up without family subconsciously find reassuring about that shitty environment.

Post-jail probation is a gauntlet of its own. They’re so underfunded and undercut by the government that many of the people who really wanted to help prisoners have left the service. The only time my probation officer showed an interest in me was when I wore a Ralph Lauren top and she went on a 15 minute rant telling me she’d dressed her child in Ralph since he was two months old. I’ve only scratched the surface with this article. For much, much more juicy bits – how to maintain a relationship in the dysfunctional amphitheatre of the prison visit room, how to make distilled hooch with a bucket and a kettle lead, how to get away with having a mobile phone and loads loads loads more go to