I’ve written previously about various aspects of imprisonment, including practical preparations such as packing your personal possessions (read here) and some elements of prison psychology, but recently I’ve been asked several questions about whether anyone can really prepare mentally for a custodial sentence. I think this is a very important issue, so I thought I should share some of my own reflections with readers. This article previously appeared on Alex’s blog Prison UK (here).
A major factor in preparing for the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment is whether you intend to plead guilty or not guilty. If a guilty plea is almost certain to result in a custodial penalty at court, then a degree of mental preparation is essential. If you haven’t been in court for a trial, it might help to attend someone else’s case and just sit in the public gallery to see how things work before you take your own place in the dock. I did that myself and found it an interesting and helpful experience.
While awaiting the hearing and sentencing, there is also time to make other necessary preparations, depending on the anticipated length of the sentence. This can include settling financial and business affairs, storage of possessions if you might lose your accommodation, dealing with childcare (if required), finding homes – temporary or permanent – for pets and asking trusted family members or close friends to deal with personal issues in your absence.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, so it’s difficult to offer an exhaustive list. What is certain is that if all these matters have been sorted out before your sentencing hearing, it can relieve a great deal of stress once you are behind bars.
As a prisoner, it can be much more problematic to do everyday tasks, such as simply contacting your own bank. The prison PIN phone system will not permit you to register or call most bank telephone numbers unless you happen to have a specific branch contact, which seems to be rarely issued these days. Forget about telephone banking, because it’s basically impossible to use. Nor is there any chance of accessing online banking services.
The best you can hope for is that you’ll be able to send written instructions to deal with banking issues by post. Of course, this also means that any confidential financial matters are likely to become known to the prison censors if your correspondence is being read.
It is worth being aware that there are also some specific financial activities that prisoners are not permitted to engage in whilst in custody following conviction. These restrictions include:
• any transaction to run a business
• any stock or share purchase or unauthorised sale
• entering into any loan or credit agreements
• gambling or the making of payments for other games of chance
So if you have any business activities that are ongoing or other financial commitments, alternative means of managing them will have to be found. In such cases, advice from professionals is likely to be essential. Remember that all your existing insurance policies, including home and car cover, are also likely to be voided by a criminal conviction unless declared.
Another hot tip is to ensure that you have had any dental treatment before you are sent down. Prison dental care can be truly shocking, so a good check-up before you go to jail is vital. Sort out any dodgy fillings or other problems, because toothache when you are banged-up in your cell can be utter misery and you can easily wait weeks or even months for an appointment. Some people can also find the sheer humiliation of being taken out of prison for treatment while dressed in prison clothing and handcuffed to an officer a very traumatic experience.
However, preparing for imprisonment if you are pleading not guilty and will be facing a trial can be much more complicated. In reality, no matter how strong you believe your defence to be things can go wrong under the glare of the bright lights in court.
Witnesses might not say what you expected them to; you might not fare well under cross-examination and there is always the risk that some unexpected piece of prosecution evidence might be served on the day in court (I’ve seen this happen more than once). Your barrister might screw up your case too. Finally, the jury – 12 random men and women – may simply not believe your defence and vote to convict you, even if you are genuinely innocent. Even if two jurors have doubts, the votes of the remaining ten are sufficient for a conviction.
Shock and awe
Military training is supposed to prepare troops for the ‘shock and awe’ of capture by the enemy. Nothing can really prepare a first-timer for the shock of imprisonment. From that moment the judge has pronounced sentence and spoken the fateful words: “You can take him (or her) down,” your life has changed forever. Even if it is a short sentence or your legal team launches an immediate appeal, you are still a prisoner.
If the dock officer has a bit of decency, then you may not actually be handcuffed in the dock before you are led to the door at the rear that leads to the cells beneath the courtroom. Some have stairs, others have lifts, but passing through that door is like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. It is another world where everything has suddenly changed.
Having got to know literally hundreds of people who have had exactly the same experience, I think the overwhelming sense is one of absolute fear of the unknown. Perhaps it gets less traumatic the second time (fortunately that’s not something I can comment on personally) – or third or fourth time, but that first time produces a range of emotions that cannot be erased from the mind.
There’s rarely a week when I haven’t reflected on that day from different perspectives. Watching or reading the news can trigger memories when the story is about someone being sent to prison, a conversation can have a similar effect. There is an indelible trauma of losing your liberty as you walk through that back door on your way to the cells beneath.
Never underestimate that cold click of steel as your wrist is cuffed, chaining you to another human being who now has control over you. Most newly convicted prisoners are so shocked at the experience that they become compliant. I know I did.
Some dock officers will be as humane as they can be within the rules. Once you have been body searched (not a full strip-search at that stage, just a thorough pat down) and have had all your valuables confiscated and inventoried on a property form, you will be locked into a holding cell – a very bleak room indeed – but also offered a cup of tea. Then your solicitor and/or barrister may arrive in the cell block to discuss the situation, particularly whether you are intending to appeal either conviction, sentence or both.
Journey of shame
Finally, after what can be a long wait of some hours in the holding cell, you will be handcuffed again – two pairs this time, one set chaining your wrists together and the other linking you to the escort officer – before being led down the corridor to the waiting transport van (‘sweatbox’) where you will be locked into a tiny cubicle with a rock hard seat and a tinted window for your journey of shame to the nearest Cat-B local prison where pretty much everyone will start their sentence, unless already a provisional Cat-A inmate (usually murder, terrorism or serious organised crime).
If you are lucky (or not remotely famous/infamous) then the press won’t be waiting in the hope of getting a tabloid ‘snatch pic’ of you shambling in your chains to the van or else through the window of the sweatbox. Some courts have a closed area at the rear of the building where prisoners are shielded from the worst of the public exposure and ridicule, but others don’t.
I was lucky and no press had even bothered to show up on the day, so unimportant am I, but others have not been so lucky and the trauma of the ritualised public shaming can diminish them as human beings. Can you prepare mentally for that? I very much doubt it.
In all probability, you won’t even know which prison you’ll be taken to on that first day. For loved ones who have been in court or waiting back at home, this can be a period of silence and anxiety. You ‘disappear’ into the criminal justice system, only to emerge as a number. It can be a good idea to ask your legal team to let your family know what has happened under the court, but often even they have no idea where you are heading either.
It can be a strange and very melancholy journey in the tiny cubicle. As you leave from the rear of the court you may see streets that earlier that day you were walking as a free citizen, unless you were already held on remand. In my case I looked at the small coffee shop that my solicitor and I had had our coffee each morning before the session in court. We drove past landmarks that I recognised from my past life – in fact just a matter of hours before. W.B. Yeats was spot on when he wrote in his poem Easter 1916 of how people and commonplace things have “all changed, changed utterly.”
You will see people on the streets passing by, perhaps glancing at the prison van with curiosity or hostility as they imagine what kind of monsters and wrong ‘uns are confined within. They are free, but you are not. This is really where the true ‘otherness’ of being a prisoner starts.
When you arrive at your destination prison you may still have time – occasionally hours – to wait before you are re-handcuffed and escorted into Reception to be ‘processed’. This involves being formally identified, photographed, strip-searched, re-clothed in prison kit, interviewed and assessed by staff. You’ll be asked a lot of questions, but told very little about your fate.
I’ve dealt in an earlier post with the subjects of prison strip-searches in Reception (read here) and having your personal possessions sorted into two heaps: those permitted and those forbidden. The former – often a very small number – will be placed into a large transparent bag with HMPS on the side and you will be allowed to take them with you to your cell. The remainder will go into sealed black property boxes until either they can be handed out to visitors or stored. You probably won’t see these items again until the day you are released or if you eventually make it to an open jail.
Different prisons operate differently. Some have ‘first night’ centres where new arrivals are accommodated and watched closely lest they succumb to despair and attempt suicide. Others have ‘induction wings’ where you might spend anything from a few days to weeks, depending on the availability of cells on normal wings or house-blocks.
Are you feeling suicidal?
Forget the holding cell under the court and the journey locked in the tiny sweatbox cubicle. It will be the moment that you are in your first cell when the heavy metal door is slammed shut for the first time and you realise that there is no handle on the inside that you really come to understand that you are now a prisoner.
Everyone is supposed to go through induction, which can last a week or so. This is where staff or other inmates – often peer mentors called Insiders or Buddies – will try to explain as much of the complex and arcane processes and procedures of prison life as they can. They should advise you of your privileges (not many on the new Entry Level) and how you can progress to Standard and then Enhanced within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. If you’d like to read more it’s all here in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013.
You’ll be assessed for mental health (often no more than a few quick questions, such as “Are you feeling suicidal?”) and tested for education skills. Don’t expect a degree – or even a PhD – to prevent you being assigned to a very basic level of literacy class if they need to get classroom numbers up, especially just before an inspection or visit from Ofsted. Still, my advice is take whatever education or work is offered.
Often ‘free-world’ qualifications will be ignored in favour of dog-eared prison certificates. This can be how repeat offenders manage to get all the best jail jobs. “I’ve got my Industrial Cleaner’s Level 2 from Wandsworth.” Go to the top of the list for a cushy wing cleaner’s post. Ask anyone who has been inside. They’ll tell you the same. It’s just one of the many ways that recidivism is routinely rewarded in our nicks.
Learn the slang
You’ll also have to learn a seemingly enormous list of prison rules and petty regulations. Even a relatively minor slip-up can cost you dearly and there’s often very little leeway given. In my first week at a Cat-C prison I once took a wrong turn along an internal walkway and ended up on a wing that appeared identical to my own, but which wasn’t mine. I politely asked a passing wing officer for directions and was shouted at, made to feel about 7-years old and told I was “bloody lucky not to be down the Block on a charge for attempting to escape.” Thank you too, Guv. Have a nice day
Then there is the prison slang that gets used everyday. A typical conversation between two seasoned old cons would probably be pretty unintelligible to most outsiders. Many everyday objects, from china tea mugs to rolling tobacco, have different names in convict jargon. This can also vary from prison to prison. I’ve blogged about this here. It’s worth learning the slang just to be able to understand what others are talking about.
I’ve also written about sharing a prison cell with a complete stranger (read here). In fact, unless you are a lifer or starting out in a Cat-A prison (high security estate), the chances are you will have to ‘two-up’ – share – with some random fellow con. Officially it is policy to segregate smokers from non-smokers but this doesn’t always happen, especially in this era of chronic overcrowding.
If you are lucky, you’ll eventually get the chance to move in with someone you get on with tolerably well. If you are very fortunate, you might share with a pad-mate you actually like. That happened to me five times during my sentence – I consider myself very lucky – and I’m still friends with several of these lads. We have shared history, so to speak.
So is there any way to really prepare for all of this?
It’s a bit like trying to plan for an expedition to an unknown and very strange land. You can try to imagine it and the people or dangers you might encounter, but to be honest there isn’t much you can do to prepare mentally to cope with the fear, anxiety, sense of daily humiliation and loneliness you are likely to experience as a prisoner. Prisons are also very noisy establishments, so if you are a particularly light sleeper or can’t nod off when someone else is snoring loudly above or below your bunk, then I’d recommend investing in a pair of foam earplugs.
There are some aspects of prison life I don’t believe anyone can prepare for. Watching a fellow con being beaten until they bleed or having boiling water and sugar thrown in their face (‘jugging’) or discovering a cell-mate hanging lifeless from the end of your shared bunks, those events – which are mercifully rare – can’t be anticipated. They are traumatic and you just have to deal with them as best you can. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many inmates – and a fair few prison staff – suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even if it hasn’t always been diagnosed.
On the other hand, if a custodial sentence really is on the cards, then I suppose you could rehearse by sleeping on a rock hard mattress in your bathroom, next to the toilet for a few nights. That’s probably the nearest you’ll get to an authentic preparation for life in an English prison cell.
For me, one of the most important aspects of getting ready for imprisonment is to ensure that you have a strong support network on the outside. If you have close family and friends talk to them about your forthcoming sentence. Don’t let them find out from the local paper (or even the evening news on TV). Ask a loved one to let the people you want to hear from know your prison number and address as soon as you can send it out or give it over the phone. Make sure that you have a small address book with all the names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone and everyone you are likely to want to write to, including your bank.
It never hurts to do some reading up about prison in advance and there are various books available, as well as informative websites and a few blogs. However, there can be no real substitute for living the reality of prison on a day-to-day basis. Avoid most TV prison dramas and films. They almost always show a sensationalised version that will bear little or no relation to reality, which is mainly about surviving the grinding boredom.
Finally, my advice is to try to stay as calm as possible. Prison can be a real test of character and you will have to rely on your own mental and emotional resources. However, if you are sensible, keep your head low and steer clear of drugs, debt, stealing from other cons and ‘grassing’ (informing on fellow prisoners), you are unlikely to be the target of any violence. Above all, stay in contact with family and friends if at all possible. Their support can prove vital in helping to maintain your sanity and emotional well-being while you are behind bars. Never take that for granted.
Alex writes a blog called Prison UK: An insider's view which he set up to provide information for people who may face being sent to prison. Until 2014 he was a serving prisoner where he supported other prisoners, particularly those new to the prison system. Alex also trained as a peer mentor and worked in prison education departments to help other prisoners improve their literacy skills