Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Movement in Prisons

I decided to write this post following recent media coverage of two deaths of prisoners in UK prisons during the past week. Both were natural deaths, in the sense that the cause of death in both cases was a long-standing serious illness, but the detail that caught my eye was that the two cons concerned had both signed ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) instructions – one had even had it tattooed on his body.

Pity about the spelling
These two stories interest me because I myself signed just such an order – often referred to in medical circles as a “No Code” – while I was in prison. It is a legal form that (in theory, at least) is supposed go on a patient’s (or prisoner’s) file to prevent the administering of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – including chest compressions or the ‘kiss of life’ or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) if that person’s heart stops or they have ceased breathing. In essence, a DNR means that if you stop breathing, you don’t want to be brought back. You want to stay ‘brown bread’ (dead).

You might be surprised just how common this sentiment is in prisons, even among those cons who aren’t feeling suicidal. I know a fair number of lifers, or inmates serving Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), as well as elderly prisoners, who have signed up for DNR in order to make their wishes clear. 

As I’ve written in the blog previously, I’m not the suicidal type myself, but I have seen some real horror stories inside prison when it comes to healthcare – or the lack of it – in the nick. After one terminally-ill prisoner who really wanted to die was repeatedly resuscitated by wing screws (who no doubt meant well), I decided that in the unlikely event that my slightly high blood-pressure did stop my ticker beating, I most certainly didn’t want to suffer the same fate.

IRC Morton Hall
My reasoning was as follows: if I was so unwell that I experienced sudden cardiac death while in prison, there would almost certainly be an extended delay in any type of help arriving. If you doubt this, just look at the media coverage of the recent death in detention of Rubel Ahmed, a 26-year old immigration detainee at Morton Hall Immigration Detention Centre in Lincolnshire. 

Although the alleged circumstances of Mr Ahmed’s death are being disputed by the Home Office – which has informed his family that he committed suicide – other detainees have spoken of him suffering from chest pains the evening before his death and claim that he desperately tried to attract staff attention to get help by banging on the locked door of his room, but was ignored until it was too late to save his life. Let’s hope that the truth behind this tragic incident will eventually come to light during the investigation and inquest. 

However, this sort of incident is one of the main reasons that I – and other prisoners – signed up for DNR. Perhaps the one thing worse than being dead is surviving in some horrendous persistent vegetative state on life support owing to irreversible brain damage because of long delays before CPR is attempted. Being in prison was bad enough, but that would be far more of a trauma for my family, so I spoke to the duty nurse in Healthcare and asked if I could sign up.

Typical DNR form
The reaction was somewhat unexpected. I was immediately quizzed as to whether I felt suicidal? No, I explained, but I do have a history in my family of sudden cardiac death, as well as higher blood pressure than normal for a man of my age. The nurse reacted with about as much hostility as if I’d put in a request for a length of rope or some cyanide with which to top myself!

Next, she made an urgent appointment for me to see the duty doctor. This was actually the first time I’d seen one in the slammer. He was extremely pleasant and we had a very relaxed chat about my concerns. 

Although he did express the view that CPR in such cases can have a positive outcome, he also agreed that extended delays in the administration, such as can occur in prison setting, might not be a great clinical decision in some cases. Having satisfied himself that I wasn’t about to use the TV coaxial cable to string myself up anytime soon, he agreed to put the required note on my medical file and to ensure that both wing staff and the healthcare team were aware of my wishes. He did, however, book me in for a routine electrocardiogram (ECG), just to check my heart. And he tested my blood pressure, which wasn’t too bad.

Getting the message over
Of course, in reality I also accepted that even having signed up for DNR, there was no means of guaranteeing that the night screws – who often find that they have to deal with this type of emergency – would even be aware of the notes on my prison file. When the alarm is sounded at 3 am, checking the computer doesn’t come very high on the list of priorities.

There is another irony about my own decision to sign up for DNR. In my first nick I trained as a gym orderly. When I was sent down I was actually in pretty good shape and used to visit the gym four times a week after work, as well as run regularly, so I was quite keen to stay fit and keep my weight down. Working in the gym was an attractive option.

A qualification many cons gain
Part of the gym orderlies’ course was called Heartstart, sponsored by the British Heart Foundation, and I am trained in Emergency Life Support (ELS) skills, including CPR. Quite a few cons take these courses, so there are probably more qualified first-aiders on prison landings than there are outside in the community. 

On occasion, cons who have given up the will to live, will attempt suicide and I’ve known individuals personally who have written ‘DNR’ on their chests, carved it into their flesh with razor blades or even tattooed it prominently on their bodies (a breach of the prison rules on tattoos, by the way). In these cases, there’s also no guarantee that anyone will take any notice of their wishes, but I suppose it is a pretty forceful statement of intent. For a person who doesn’t have anything much to live for, death – in either its natural or premature forms – can seem to offer a way out and, sadly, for some prisoners it can seem to be the best chance they have for release.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Prison Insiders: Screws Without Keys?

I’ve written in a previous blog post about bent prison officers being called ‘cons with keys’. Since the title of this blog is “an Insider’s View” of the UK prison system, I thought I should respond to a recent reader’s request and share some thoughts about Insiders and why some cons consider them to be ‘screws without keys’.

Among the most trusted categories of prisoner you can find Insiders, Listeners and orderlies. All three roles are technically carried out by ‘red bands’ (trusted cons who are the equivalent of trustees in the US prison system). As I’ve explained in my earlier post about Screw Boys, red bands can be distrusted by other cons because they are perceived to be privileged and often far too close for comfort to the wing screws and even to managers and governors.  

Listeners support other prisoners
Just to recap on what I’ve written previously, orderlies are red bands who are trusted to work in special or privileged positions. They are recruited from the ranks of the well-behaved and responsible cons and often get placed to work in prison offices, the staff mess, the stores, reception and so on. They sometimes get better rates of pay than ordinary inmates and can develop friendly relationships with those members of staff they work with on a daily basis.

In contrast, Listeners are unpaid prisoners who have volunteered to be specially trained by the Samaritans as non-judgemental peer support. Set up in 1991, the system operates across most prisons in the UK. According to the official mission statement “the objectives of the scheme are to assist in reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths, reducing self-harm and helping to alleviate the feelings of those in distress.” The service is supposed to be available to any prisoner 24/7. You can find out more about the Listeners and the support they offer here.

The Samaritans estimate that there are around 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at any one time. As their name suggests, they are supposed to listen to prisoners talking about their problems, but not to give specific advice or start solving other people's problems for them.

Insiders, on the other hand, play a very different role and one that seems to be expanding as the numbers of uniformed wing staff are reduced. Insiders are peer mentors and ‘fixers’ who are supposed to be available on wings to help their fellow cons. They are appointed by wing governors, on the recommendation of wing staff, and can be called upon to do all manner of jobs that there just aren’t enough uniformed staff to do. At times, cons prefer to talk things over with other prisoners, rather than screws.

One of the major roles of an Insider is to welcome new arrivals when they hit the wing and to make sure that they have essentials such as prison bedding, unless this has already been issued during the reception process. They answer basic questions about timetables, regimes and explain how to submit requests (applications or ‘apps’) to the prison staff.

Newspaper app
In some closed prisons, the Insiders largely run the induction process for newly arrived cons. They organise talks in a classroom on various aspects of prison life and give advice on specific problems as they arise. In some nicks they even get to oversee education tests (literacy and numeracy) and help new cons fill in forms, an important role when a fair proportion of adult prisoners has problems reading and writing. Every prison is slightly different, so even new arrivals from other nicks can require assistance.

The Insider role tends to be more crucial in B-cat local prisons because this is where remands and newly convicted cons first arrive in the system. Many will never have been inside a nick before and most are, to put it mildly, crapping themselves with fear of the unknown, particularly of experiencing violence or even rape within the first 24 hours. Of course, the reality is very different, but try telling that to a new reception who has seen films like the Shawshank Redemption or Scum on TV… There can be a lot of tears sometimes.

In these situations, the Insider will sit down with the new arrival and basically reassure him that he will honestly be OK as long as he keeps his head down and doesn’t get into debt on the wings. You help them fill in their first pre-order menu sheet so they don’t end up on what is called ‘discrep’ (sometimes dubbed ‘dis crap’) – basically whatever surplus meal may be left over from the day before. Believe me, discrep is not something you really want to end up on during your first week in the slammer.

Room service left much to be desired
If disillusioned screws sometimes complain that cons these days demand ‘room service’, the Insiders often end up being the ones who deliver it to the cell door. Need to borrow a pen to fill in an app, a menu order or a canteen sheet? Of course, the Insider will have a pen – that will rarely be seen again. Having a bad day and feeling the need of a compassionate phone call home from the office phone? Get the Insider to go and sort it out with the nasty-looking screw who is scowling in the wing office. The list of little jobs is endless.

Because the Insider – there is usually one on each wing, sometimes two in a very large B-cat local nick – is often the only fellow con who is perceived to enjoy any sort of influence with the senior management, he will be the one selected to go and raise any grievances during wing meetings with governors, whether that’s because there’s been no hot water in the showers for the whole week or because the weekly library visit has just been cancelled for the third week running owing to ‘operational issues’ (ie not enough uniformed screws available for duty).

Whereas Listeners aren’t supposed to give advice to other cons, Insiders are tasked with doing just that. They are supposed to learn all the Prison Rules, local regulations, regimes and timetables, relevant Prison Service Instructions (PSIs), Safer Custody procedures and more policies than the average screw. When I was working as an Insider, I used to get Senior Officers (SOs) asking discreetly for advice on PSIs they’d never bothered to read.

Prison blanket: not wool
Some of the jobs you get as an Insider can be bizarre. I was once tasked by a governor grade in the Equalities Team at one C-cat nick to find out whether the standard-issue orange bedding blanket (one per con unless you are over 65 or have a medical problem and an appropriate certificate from Healthcare!) was suitable for vegans to use. 

This particularly odyssey started because a particularly vocal vegan – who enjoyed causing problems – claimed that the blankets contained a polyester and wool mixture and was therefore threatening to bring legal action against the nick. Was there a label on these bastards? No, of course not. That would have been far too easy.

Eventually I had to trek down to the prison laundry and get a signed chit from the chief laundry wonk that all prison-issue blankets were entirely synthetic and no animals had been involved in the manufacture thereof. The governor almost danced for joy when I handed him the paperwork.

Then we had the saga of transsexual pyjamas. Really. One of the prison wings accommodated a pre-op transsexual. Now, in this age of equality and diversity there are specific rules on the treatment of transsexuals in custody – quite rightly, in my view. There is even a special section in the PSIs about this very issue. 

Post-op, these cons are considered like any other female prisoner and are allocated to a women’s nick. However, if they are still awaiting gender reassignment surgery, but have had the psychological evaluations and commenced hormone treatment, then they are still considered to be male, even if they are allowed to use a female name and appropriate clothing inside a male prison. As you can imagine, this can cause certain complications, though more because of the jail bureaucracy, rather than other cons, who can be remarkably broadminded and liberal. 

In this particular case, the con was happy enough wearing prison jeans and a sweatshirt on the wing, but had requested being permitted to purchase female nightwear from the mail-order catalogue to wear in her cell after bang-up. A female principal officer had refused the request, regardless of what was written in the PSI on Equality. Eventually we got it sorted out, permission was granted by a more senior governor and the prisoner ordered her female clothing. Everyone was happy again.

In this era where 23-hour a day bang-up is becoming far more common in closed prisons, Insiders often get much more time out of their cells than other inmates. Increasingly, they are being used to cover staff shortages where tasks aren’t related to security, for example handing out menu and canteen sheets, helping fellow cons fill in official forms, delivering messages for staff, organising meetings for equality and diversity, or for older prisoners or just sorting out numerous everyday problems on wings that a few years ago might have been done by uniformed screws.

Listeners: on call 24/7
Similar problems are being experienced by Listeners in some nicks. They can find themselves ‘baby-sitting’ potentially suicidal cons who should really be on suicide watch supervised by wing staff. Although this is officially against both prison regulations and the Samaritans’ own rules, it definitely goes on because there simply aren’t sufficient frontline members of staff in some prisons to cover these roles.

At one D-cat (open prison), a senior manager once told me in private that he wished he could employ the Insiders to do much more, simply because they were often better educated than many of his wing staff. Although I’ve never been an inmate in a private sector prison, I gather from fellow cons who have that some wings are virtually run by red bands because the staff who are recruited on private sector contracts as operational grades are so young and inexperienced that the older cons know far more about how to run a prison properly. 

As I’ve mentioned before in these blog posts, most prisons in the UK have to run on the basis of an unwritten deal between the screws and a majority of the cons. Even in a B-cat local, two or three wing screws can never hope to control 170 prisoners if they refuse to be managed. For this reason, most inmates take the view that a quiet nick is a good gaff in which to do your ‘bird’ (sentence). 

Mr Bridger: no riots
Moreover, the traffickers and tobacco barons inside prisons who are much more interested in making huge profits, definitely don’t want a rumble or a riot if they can keep a lid on things because disturbances usually disrupt the flow of contraband, while serious violence can lead the shipping out of other cons who may be owing them money. For that reason, riots are almost always bad for business.

Without the compliant cons – Insiders, Listeners, orderlies, tobacco barons, screw-boys and grasses – the only kind of prison model that could work would be a US-style supermax where the entire inmate population is on 23-hour lockdown. This would be ruinously expensive for the UK taxpayer and unnecessary overkill for the majority of cons who aren’t violent or who pose little or no threat to the public, as well as storing up a potential mental health crisis when these prisoners are eventually released back into society, having basically been driven insane by endless solitary confinement.

We may not yet have reached quite the level of collaboration between cons and screws that was portrayed in the Shawshank Redemption. As far as I’m aware no Andy Dufresne characters are really cooking the books for bent governors or doing screws’ tax returns in HM prisons. However, without the peer mentors – Insiders and Listeners – I think prisons would be increasingly difficult to keep running, not to mention that the rate of suicide and self-harm might well be rising even more steeply than it is at present. Not a bad return for around £16 a week for each Insider.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Chris Grayling’s Pants

Only a brief post today because I’ve been travelling, but I just wanted to share a quick story with readers of this blog. I happened to meet another ex-con earlier today and he told me what I thought was a brilliant anecdote.

Buried under a pile of pants?
Following on from the recent campaign led by the Howard League for Penal Reform to encourage supporters to send donated books intended for prison libraries directly to Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State, as a protest against the ban on families and friends sending in books and clean underwear to prisoners, this bloke – who is now off his licence – decided to go one better and send Mr G a pair of men’s pants. He assured me that these keks were brand new, rather than second hand.

The donated underwear in question was accompanied by a formal letter requesting that the Secretary of State respond to inform the donor to which prison the pants were being allocated. As yet, he hasn’t had a reply (surprise, surprise!). However, he does intend to keep chasing the issue up. I really appreciated this lad’s sense of humour.

New IEP policy is complete pants
Given that supporters of the Howard League campaign who have previously sent books haven’t had any responses to date on the fate of the volumes they have posted, I’d be willing to bet that these freebie pants have ended up in some low ranking bureaucrat’s desk bin (or perhaps even his personal knicker drawer at home). However, if I find out more, I’ll be sure to keep you all updated. 

Maybe we should consider launching a new national campaign called ‘Chris Grayling’s Pants’. The thought of the office of the Secretary of State for (In)Justice’s office suddenly being inundated with hundreds of pair of boxers, trunks, briefs, slips etc would just be too good to be true. Anyone out there up for the challenge of organising this?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Prison Penpals: Who Writes and Why?

Having posted recently on this blog about the problems prisoners can face in keeping in touch with family and friends while they are in jail, I thought I should write something on the subject of prison penpals. These can really be a lifeline for prisoners who don’t have any close family or friends of their own. Just receiving an occasional letter from the outside world can make all the difference to someone who is struggling with life inside.

Although the whole prison penpal thing isn’t yet as developed in the UK as it is in the USA (where there are numerous websites listing cons requesting penpals such as, it is still a growing phenomenon in our prisons. I know a large number of cons who do write regularly to their correspondents, some of whom they have never actually met in person. 

Typical US penpal ad
Sometimes these penpals are friends of friends, or even female prisoners in women’s nicks. Others are involved in various prisoner support groups, religious organisations or just make contact through online websites similar to the US versions.

In general, I’m all in favour of anything that provides prisoners with a window on the outside world and a bit of normality in what can be a very dark, depressing and loveless environment. Having a regular correspondent can also improve cons’ writing skills, as well as their motivation to learn.   

Years ago I was involved with an international charity that matched prisoners on US death rows with penpals. For several years I wrote a couple of times per month to a con who was in a prison down in Florida. He was an entertaining correspondent and I did learn quite a lot about the US penitentiary system from him. We also had a shared interest in English literature and I was able to order paperback books for him via We’d both read the same book at the same time and then compare our views and reactions to it in our letters. I really enjoyed writing to him and I like to think that our correspondence made his existence on death row a little more bearable and less isolated.

Sadly, his appeals ran out, his time came and he was executed by lethal injection. I still have a collection of his letters that were written around 12 years ago, including the last one he sent me the night before he was put to death, in which he thanked me for my friendship and support. Obviously, back then I never imagined that I’d end up in the slammer myself. It’s a strange old world.

So I do appreciate how important having regular correspondents can be, especially when prisoners have no-one else with whom they can communicate. However, there can be potential perils and pitfalls for the unwary. 

I was reminded of the problems with prison penpals when I was reading one of the latest letters on the excellent Prisoners’ Families Voices website. I’ll share it because I think this is an instructive story of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has served a jail sentence, but which may come as something of a surprise to those who haven’t had any direct experience of prisons or prisoners.

The writer of the letter explains that she made the decision to break up with her then partner who is serving a lengthy stretch inside and told him this during a visit. She goes on to observe that her ex recently informed her in a letter that he has now met another woman who has become his penfriend. 

In this letter he also let her know that this person is sending him money and ‘looking after him’. However, she relates that her ex-partner then goes on note that he has no intention of settling down in a relationship with the woman he is writing to, but would “jump at the chance” to get back together with her (his ex) when he is released. And thereby hangs a tale!

Writing in search of love or...?
This phenomenon will be only too familiar to many women who have developed a penpal relationship with a bloke who is in the slammer. For those on the outside, writing to a con they may never have actually met is seen as a slightly edgy thing to do. There may even be a frisson of excitement in corresponding with a self-proclaimed ‘bad boy’ who has some tattoos and a bit of attitude. 

Prison, by its very nature is a closed world and people can become very curious about what really goes on inside. Maybe that’s why so many people read this and other prison blogs.

However, there is also a potentially romantic element to having a boyfriend in the nick, particularly for females who are a little bit – how to put this politely? – needy. Having a boyfriend who is in jail at least means that his penpal girlfriend knows where he is on a Saturday night. He won’t cheat on her – at least not with another woman – while he’s inside and the fact that she holds the purse-strings also gives her a degree of power over him. It’s her decision whether she sends him a regular postal order or not. The relationship can soon become one of mutual dependence: romantic, as well as financial.

A weekly postal order can make all the difference
The key problem is that a sizeable number of cons are highly manipulative people. Those that don’t have close family members willing to provide financial support have limited options when they are in prison. Having a penpal who is willing to provide the readies for burn (tobacco) and other essentials is a prize worth having. If she (or he – believe me, some cons aren’t that fussy) keeps that all-important cash flow coming, then his letters from prison will continue to drop on to the doormat.  

Understandably, a great many cons are also sexually frustrated. Having a regular supply of explicit letters from a female correspondent is a massive bonus, as is having a few candid photos from time to time. Of course, there is a limit to just how sexually explicit prison mail can be, but the bar is actually pretty high before a letter will get blocked. 

While working as an Insider (peer mentor) I’ve been asked to read letters to cons who have problems reading and I’ve been quite amazed at what routinely gets past the censor, including some of the photos wives, girlfriends and female penpals have sent in. Really racy ones might get passed round between mates in order to spice up those moments when a prisoner manages to get some special time alone in his cell… if you catch my drift. 

Some do find true love with cons
I have known some cons who build up quite a ‘stable’ of female penpals, often in addition to having a wife or regular girlfriend at home. One young drug dealer I got to know quite well in a B-cat nick was running four relationships simultaneously: his partner, with whom he had two kids, as well as three unsuspecting female penpals who each thought that they were in exclusive contact with him and who believed they were romantically involved. 

All four women were sending him a monthly postal order and the cash, which totalled much more than he was allowed to spend each week on the canteen, was mounting up in his prison account. He was completely shameless about his activities, although he did ensure that he wrote a loving thank you letter to each one in response to every letter – and postal order – he received.

Now, it is also true that some prisoners and their penpals do form serious relationships that continue after release. However, for every story of true love, I would guess that there are another half-dozen that are doomed from the start, mainly because – as in the case described above – the con really isn’t romantically involved beyond breaking up the boredom of prison life by writing letters and, of course, waiting for the arrival of those loveable little postal orders that make life in the slammer so much more bearable. And as the cynical American writer Dorothy Parker once observed, the two sweetest words in the English language are “cheque enclosed”. I wonder if she ever wrote to a con.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Quick Guide to the Cats… and Re-cats

I’ve been asked by a reader of this blog to explain the difference between the various security categories of prison in the UK. So here goes.

The current four-tier system was set up following a review of prison security under Lord Mountbatten back in 1966. His inquiry followed the highly embarrassing escape of the Soviet spy George Blake from HMP Wormwood Scrubs earlier the same year.

As things stand there are currently four specific categories into which adult male prisoners are placed shortly after conviction:

George Blake: one who got away
Category A: Prisoners whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public, the police or the security of the state, no matter how unlikely that escape might be
Category B: Prisoners for whom the very highest conditions of security are not necessary but for whom escape must be made very difficult
Category C: Prisoners who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who do not have the resources or will to make a determined escape attempt
Category D: Prisoners who can reasonably be trusted in open conditions

Since 1987 Cat-A prisoners have been graded into three further levels: standard risk, high risk and exceptional risk (sometimes called ‘triple A-cats’). Convicted terrorists usually get top billing. If one of these guys ever escaped, it would probably be a resignation issue for the Prisons Minister, plus various governors and security chiefs.

I’ve been a B-cat, a C-cat and a D-cat during my time as a prisoner, so although I can give first-hand views on these levels, I’ve never been an A-cat con. However, I have shared pads (cells) with former A-cat men – lifers who have been “on the book” as it’s sometimes called – so I’ve picked up some information along the way from them.

HMP Belmarsh: London's high security nick
From what I’ve been told – somewhat paradoxically – A-cats can sometimes have much more internal freedom within their housing units, although their movement off the wing is much more carefully controlled at all times. They are always accompanied by a security file – “the book” – in which all their movements and all other relevant issues are recorded. Hence the term “being on the book”, or “being taken off the book” (re-categorised).

However, in what I can only suppose is an effort to mitigate the rigours of life imprisonment, A-cats report that they get access to kitchens so they can prepare their own meals and various other privileges or perks that mere B-cats can only dream about. A couple of lifers have told me (at some length, sigh!) just how much they missed being A-cat men. By the time they eventually reached the dizzy depths of being D-cats, nothing was ever as good as it was when they were still “on the book”.

Cat-A: high walls, razor wire and dogs
Of course, how A-cats live within the high security estate is largely dictated by the level of individual risk they are deemed to pose. Some of these cons are only allowed out of their cells when a specific number of screws and a wing manager are present. This can be what is called “four man unlock” or “three man unlock” and so on. Some of these lads are what an old lag I got to know referred to as “right naughty parcels”… meaning very bad or highly violent cons.

As one of my ex-pad mates – who had been on the book for some years – once remarked, the thing with high security jails is that things can go from “quiet to riot” very quickly. Some lifers, particularly those who haven’t much realistic prospect of ever getting out before they are in their 90s, really don’t have much to lose, so a disrespectful word or a failure to acknowledge someone on a landing can trigger a bizarrely violent overreaction. As my pad-mate observed: “If I reckoned someone was trying to mug me off, I’d have to have the cunt!” Fortunately he had calmed down a lot by the time we got acquainted in a Cat-D.

A-cats get their security status reviewed by the Director of High Security Prisons. If refused re-categorisation to B-cat, they can get referred to the Category A Review Committee. For some lifers and very high-risk prisoners, this can prove to be a very long process. I know two lifers who have taken over 30 years to progress from A-cat to D-cat and they still haven’t really got a prayer of being released on parole. Some lifers are lucky if they ever make it to B-cat or C-cat. And remember, these guys are not ‘whole life’ tariff prisoners – there are currently around 55 of them – who have been sentenced to die in prison.

HMP Rye Hill: a Cat-B private nick
Below the Cat-As are the Cat-Bs. Now I spent some time in Cat-B nicks, so I do know a bit about these establishments. There are Cat-B locals and Cat-B trainers. Locals are prisons that take people directly from court or hold them on remand awaiting trial. Pretty much everyone who gets sent down by a court will end up in a Cat-B local for a while until their security categorisation has been confirmed. A few cons may be made ‘provisional A-cats’ prior to conviction and sentencing – mainly people charged with murder, kidnapping or terrorist offences.

A Cat-B training prison pretty much does what it says on the tin. It accommodates cons who mustn’t be allowed to leg it over the wall in any circumstances and is supposed to offer some form of vocational training or education. To be honest, I really couldn’t tell the difference between a Cat-B and a Cat-C prison other than there were fewer screws present on the wings at the latter establishment! Oh, and I had one less bolt on the outside of my cell door.

Someone once described the difference between a Cat-B and a Cat-C as being that Cat-C nicks are just miles outside towns in the middle of nowhere. I’d say that was a pretty fair assessment, based on my own experience. 

For B-cat prisoners, the main objective behind getting re-categorised to C-cat is in order to achieve what is called ‘sentence progression’. This is really crucial for lifers and those serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPPs) – sometimes cruelly nicknamed ‘plastic lifers’. Without getting to a Cat-D (open prison) they really don’t have much hope of convincing the Parole Board that their risk can be managed in the community. Time spent in a Cat-D increases their chances of getting recommended for release on life licence. 

HMP Stocken: Cat-C prison
For most other cons who are serving determinate (fixed-term) sentences, the re-categorisation process is less essential. I’ve known B-cats being released from those nicks straight back onto the street without ever getting their C-cat, let along their D-cat. Of course, licence conditions might be much tougher, including a requirement to reside in supervised ‘approved premises’ – that is, a hostel – for a period of time after release.

All prisoners whose sentence is four years or over will have their security classification reviewed annually. If serving less than four years, then it should be reviewed every six months.

In my naivety, I actually assumed that getting my C-cat would mean being transferred to a much better nick where I would enjoy more freedom. How wrong I was. I still ended up languishing in a Cat-B nick for a further six months and was then shipped off to a Cat-C in the middle of nowhere. 

OK, I did get a much better job – paying the princely sum of £18.00 per week – in the Education Department, but otherwise the nick was if anything even tighter on security than the Cat-B. Instead of being on a large wing of 180 cons, we were locked down on small spurs accommodating around 60 lads. We had less exercise, reduced access to the gym and much more intrusive body searching than we did at the Cat-B. 

The only other bonus – not to be underestimated – was that instead of the usual open plan WC in each cell we actually had a proper en-suite in a tiny separate room. Believe me, after having had to take a crap in front of another bloke for a couple of years, that was a major improvement in the quality of life. Beyond that, Cat-C was a bit of a disappointment.

Cat-D: no more handcuffs: yippee!
When I finally got my D-cat status – after three appeals – the difference was astonishing. No more handcuffs. No more bars on windows. No more locked doors and – no more cells. We all started out in small shared rooms and after about nine months or so you got a single room – assuming you had your Enhanced status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system.

In a Cat-D nick you usually work unsupervised. After about three months you can apply for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to visit the local town on your own and eventually you may get to go home for a few days each month to help prepare you for release. Some D-cat prisoners get voluntary work in the town with local charities; a few even get paid work, although 40 percent of any earnings above £20 per week (and after tax and NI have been paid) gets deducted and donated to Victim Support under the provisions of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act (1996).

Escape list: a 'banana suit'
You can always tell those cons who’ve just arrived at a Cat-D prison for the first time. They look nervous and can’t really believe that there are no walls or fences keeping them inside any more. If they wanted to, they could just leg it over the hills and far away. 

In fact, most lads who are daft enough to try to do a runner get caught within a matter of hours. I recall one who was found sitting on the platform at the nearest railway station waiting for the London train. Then it’s back to a Cat-B nick and at least a few more months on top of their existing sentences. If they are really unlucky they could end up on the E-list (escape risks) and have to walk around in a green and yellow clown suit all day, while getting stripped naked when they are in their cell every night. Not a barrel of laughs, really.

So there, in a nutshell, are the various Cats in the UK prison system. Having experienced three of the four security levels myself, I’d say that the only significant differences are between Cat-C and Cat-D prisons. My advice is to give them all a wide berth, if you possibly can.