Saturday, February 28, 2015

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101 Things to do in a Cat-B Cell

Alex Cavendish explains how a prisoner gets their day in under a 23 hour lock up regime. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

I was asked recently by a blog reader to provide an insight into what there is to do in a typical Cat-B cell during 23-hour bang-up. This regime is becoming more and more common these days owing to a combination of staff shortages and overcrowding on the wings.

'Purposeful activity' in a cell
By pure coincidence, I was back in a Cat-B nick about ten days ago visiting a mate. I explained what I was planning to write and I asked him for some ideas. 

He looked at me blankly for a moment and then said: “I wake up, I shit and shave, I watch TV, I collect my lunch and eat it. Then I sleep or read until the evening meal is served. I eat it, watch TV and then I sleep. It’s like Groundhog Day without the happy ending.”

He’s actually quite fortunate as he has a job as the shower cleaner on the wing. This means that he gets out of his cell for around an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon in order to mop the shower room. Because of this job he also gets a single cell – a real luxury in most nicks these days. He generally doesn’t bother with 30 minutes exercise around the yard, mainly because the weather is so cold at the moment and since library visits haven’t happened for weeks, he has largely given up on reading. 

In many nicks association periods are mainly spent queuing to use the wing payphones or getting a quick shower. Some Cat-B locals also only allow one evening association session per week for each landing.

“What do your readers actually think cons do in a cell?” he wanted to know. 

“Well, I suppose they are trying to picture themselves in your position and to try to understand how you pass your time,” I replied. 

He laughed. “It’s going to be the most boring blog post you’ve ever written!”

A typical shared cell
Anyway, based on the discussion we had in the visits hall, we put together this list for the average 23-hour day behind the cell door. He doesn’t smoke and neither do I, but 80 percent of adult male prisoners do, so we decided to add that to the list. We also opted to leave out anything related to drug use, mainly because neither of us have ever taken illegal substances, but I suppose that for many cons that is also a central feature of their day in the slammer.

We also omitted self-harming, which for a significant number of inmates is the only way that they can cope with the stresses of their own sentences. As HM Inspectorate of Prisons has noted in some of its recent inspection reports, it’s also how many prisoners attract official attention when prisons are so short of staff that only self-harmers are noticed or referred to mental healthcare.

There are only so many games to play
In a shared cell, of course, you can also talk – assuming you and your pad-mate have anything worthwhile to say to each other. You could also play cards, if either of you owns a pack (£1 on most canteen sheets) or a board game, such as chess or Scrabble, if you have one in possession. In reality, the longer the sentence, the less you really feel like playing board games. Alternatively, if you and your cell-mate don’t get on then you can both stew in tense silence or finally snap and start fighting each other until the general alarm gets sounded!

So here is our list. Sadly, we didn’t make it to the magic 101…

1. Sleep
2. Lie in bed
3. Lie on the bed
4. Get off the bed
5. Make the bed
6. Roll a cigarette
7. Smoke a cigarette
8. Get dressed
9. Eat breakfast (small packet of cereal with carton of milk)
10. Make a cup of tea (five prison tea-bags issued per day)
11. Wash up the bowl
12. Wash up the mug
13. Urinate
14. Defecate
15. Wash in the sink
16. Shave
17. Clean teeth
18. Clip nails (as required)
19. Clean the cell with a dustpan and brush
20. Read a book (assuming you have one)
21. Read a newspaper (assuming you order and pay for one)
22. Watch TV (assuming you’re not on Basic regime)
23. Listen to music (if you have a radio or CD player)
24. Write a letter (one free letter per week)
25. Read a letter (assuming you’ve received one)
26. Fill in menu sheet (once a week)
27. Fill in laundry list (once a week)
28. Fill in canteen sheet (once a week)
29. Write out a general app (application form)
30. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door for showers (three times a week)
31. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door and use the wing payphone (twice a week)
32. Collect sandwich for lunch
33. Eat sandwich
34. Collect hot evening meal
35. Eat meal
36. Wash up plate and plastic utensils
37. Watch more TV
38. Look out of the cell window at the wall outside
39. Get undressed
40. Get into bed
41. Masturbate (optional – and easier in a single cell)
42. Try to sleep again despite the shouting and screaming around you
43. … er, that’s about it, folks!

One of the frequent claims made by politicians is that prison life should be all about “purposeful activity”. This can include participation in education, offending behaviour courses, vocational training or work. Successive prison ministers have demanded that cons shouldn’t simply “sleep through their sentences” or watch TV all day.

The punishment of daytime TV...
While there will always be a fair number of prisoners who would prefer to sleep in their bunks for most of the day, in my experience the majority actually want to be doing something, even if it’s cleaning the landings, doing a bit of painting, working down the stores or in the laundry, or in the kitchens or serving food. Others genuinely want to participate in education classes to start catching up on basic literacy and numeracy that they missed out on as children, while some are keen to gain vocational qualifications that might help them find employment when they’ve been released.

Current overcrowding means that there are far too few work and education placements to go round. When it comes to the best prison jobs preference is often given to those prisoners who are serving longer sentences so will be around longer once they’ve been trained up as orderlies, so cons on shorter sentences may not be considered when a vacancy arises. At present the default setting seems to be human warehousing with little or no chance of “purposeful activity” of any description.

Hopefully, between us – an ex-prisoner and a serving con – we’ve managed to answer readers’ questions about life in a Cat-B cell on 23-hour bang-up. Apologies if you found this blog post boring, but just imagine how much more boring it is to be locked in your cell day after day, week after week and month after month.


Emmett Grogan said...

Similar to long term unemployment then I guess, especially if your a singleton.

Feel te love said...

Dont forget about those many lost souls who find god within the confines of thier cell.

AM said...

That's one, the old god fella. - plus press-ups. I doubt I would be doing either!

Emmett Grogan said...

Did you have dirty pictures up on the wall Mackers or have I been watching too much Ronnie Barker in Porridge? lol

AM said...

I didn't have any. Very few of the boys did. The few that did I think did it to wind up those who disapproved. But there were porn books. The boys used to call them Connolly books. It started from shouting to the other wing for a book and it was "Connolly's thoughts on women" later abbreviated to Connolly books.

Officially they were not approved but there was no book burning ceremonies.

Emmett Grogan said...

Interesting :) I take it if you shouted "any Casement books" you would have been searching for the gay variety lol