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The Hard Times Handbook: A Prison Sentence Survival Primer Dark & NSFW 

The Hard Times Handbook: A Prison Sentence Survival Primer

The self-help section is one of the most stacked in bookstores. Or at least in those bookstores that exist today. Chicken soup, selling Ferraris, moving cheese… there’s a lot out there to help one cope with the problems life throws at them.

But what do you do if you find yourself going to jail? How do you find a guru to help you prepare? One former UK prisoner is aiming to change all of that.

The Problem of Prison, Made a Little Easier

Carl Cattermole of Prisonism has created a handbook called the HM Prison Service – A Survival Guide.

While calling it a survival guide, Carl’s intentions were to compile his experiences and generally known “secrets” into a manual that would make jail time a little easy for the convict. He based his handbook on the time he spent in 5 prisons across the UK.

With your favourite tapes, your own bed sheets, flip-flops and a few bits of information it becomes so much easier

The handbook talks about what to do from the sentencing to eventual release and is well worth a read, criminal record not withstanding.

The Grand Entry

Most arrests will immediately warrant bail. Those nervous nights waiting for the sentence can eat one up. Largely, for the lighter sentences (under four years), the average inmate spends less than half the sentence behind bars. Blame it on overcrowding. But while waiting for the sentence, one still has to remember that there is a life outside bars that can be just as rough.

Don’t forget to cancel your standing orders and phone before you go away or HSBC might repossess your family and friends by the time you get released.

Reality sinks in once the prisoner is carted off in the prison vans. He is “processed” into the prison database, searched (yes, that search too), and given his kit. He then spends his time in the “first night wing.”

It can be a rough first night. Photo via Krystian Olszanski
It can be a rough first night. Photo via Krystian Olszanski

The next two weeks are an induction, as the inmate gets to know more about prison, the rules, where to get supplies, the library, etc. The inmate also is assessed for drug dependencies and given a mental evaluation.

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.

But soon the induction is over and prison life begins.

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…

…how many people are serving such small sentences for crimes against people and how others are serving such huge ones for crimes against capital…

…and how bitties smoke teabags wrapped in bible pages when they’ve run out of cigarettes

Keeping quiet is an old survival trick. And a smart one. Even the most affable inmates will be playing it low key as well, so the inmate has to sniff them out. A good way is to find out who reads the same papers and magazines, and strike up a conversation. But all secrets should be kept hidden, for inmates may not quite be what they may claim.

The smart prisoner takes in the right personal belongings. Rules differ from prison to prison, so the inmate should read up on what’s allowed.

One of the best items that made the list – hair clippers. And there’s a solid reason why.

The Prison Economy

With no money, the prisons run on two currencies: cigarettes and cans of tuna.

A haircut costs 2 tins. A little hash costs half a pound of tobacco. So even non smokers would do well to stock up on some transactional tobacco.

A small fortune in prison. Photo via David Mulder
A small fortune in prison. Photo via David Mulder

Smokers, however, need to keep their habit on the quiet, otherwise risk a swarm of “donation seekers.” It might make sense to kick the habit before going behind bars.


Modern prisons are far removed from what is shown in films. While brutal violence does occur, it is not as often as in reel life.

Generally speaking if you adhere to the following simple rules prison is safer than your average provincial high street on a Friday night: don’t be wet, but at the same time don’t walk around like Buzz Lightyear, never ever grass anyone up, don’t steal from people, don’t start taking smack and don’t start ‘ticking’ (borrowing things on advance)

The Cell Life

You cannot choose your cellmate in prison. But when you share 23 hours a day with a person in a confined space, who that person is makes a big difference. Not having another person in there makes it all the better. All it takes is a couple of tricks.

It’s quite easy to stage a fight if you have nothing to lose and want to be made high risk and therefore get a single cell. Alternatively you can say you’re a bedwetter when you’re first assessed… I know people who that has worked for

But if one does want to change cellmates, there are two options. Option one is to formally apply for a change that will mostly get lost in “the Bermuda triangle of prison paperwork.”

2 smokes and you're gone. Photo via Christopher
2 smokes and you’re gone. Photo via Christopher

The easiest option is to persuade a willing inmate, strike up the price (a few cigarettes), and move. Once the guards are informed that it has already happened, they are usually okay with it.

However the guards are not inmates’ friends. No matter how friendly they might seem to be:

But really there are only two types of screws… firstly those who are malevolent from the start and secondly those who are quite reasonable with you but then show their true colours. The former is preferable because at least you know what you’re getting. Never ever trust a screw.

They will regularly shakedown cells during searches, and if they want to find something, they will. They have obvious and quiet ways to gather information about what is going on.

The funny thing is you’ll get searched MORE if you’re not using or selling drugs because it suits them to not find anything… this way the staff have less paperwork and the statistics look as though there are no drugs in the jail.

Drug tests are more or less a joke. Inmates know of upcoming tests well in advance and ensure traces are flushed out of their system by drinking a lot of water. That means an inmate can pretty much only be caught for weed.

Unless they are taking pills from other sick inmates and get caught on the test.

Staying Sane and Outside Contact

With the same faces and limited interaction, the mind turns neurotic quickly. The smallest of things said in a conversation or letter are over analyzed for weeks.

The only place to escape when locked up is inside your head. Television is the distraction of choice and becomes a surrogate family for many people.

But the more industrious choose books and learning to distract the mind. Completing education, learning new languages, or just plain and simple reading of books can keep the mind occupied, and make the inmate sharper.

An inmate should also try to get a job. There are around 15 different jobs from litter picker to gardener to a toe-by-toe mentor (teaching reading and writing). Wages could range from GBP 2.50 to GBP 10 a week. 

Keeping in touch with loved ones is even more difficult. The prison payphones are notoriously expensive. It is a lumbering process and all lines are monitored. that leaves the other option: the illegal mobile phone.

Too damn expensive. YouTube screengrab
Too damn expensive. YouTube screengrab

Mobile phones are serious business. Prisons crack down on it from time to time. Possessing one could attract additional time, ineligibility for parole, or other punishment. Despite that, prisons are awash with mobile phones. There are ways to avoid the guards eyes.

…you can look out for phone scanners by keeping your TV on – if it flickers they’re on the landing. Always watch the shadows outside your cell, never ever use it during lunchtime bang up and if you’re being transferred to another jail be aware of the BOSS chair (the ominous sounding Body Orifice Security Scanner)

The other approach is refreshingly old school. Writing letters. It is the closest an inmate gets to personal interaction. But the handbook has some solid advice: ensure letters from the outside have social gossip, stupid funny memes, viral jokes, an article recommendation, etc.

When you begin to understand that the prison environment often isn’t the problem, it’s the feeling of the outside world keeping moving while you feel like you’re stuck in a cryogenic ice cube, it’s easy to see how these frivolous pieces of contact can make a critical difference

All letters are read except the ones with attorney client privilege. Letters can also be used to ask for money to buy items. Money transfer methods are a trade off between time and cost. Cheques are slow but cheap. Postal orders are quick but costly. Cash needs to be recorded post so that guards do not steal it.

Prison visits are a strange thing. It is difficult to have a conversation in that environment for two hours. Lip readers monitor conversations. Drugs are generally being passed. Finishing a conversation too quickly will mean a strip search for contraband, simply because the guards thought the whole meeting was a drug transaction.

Prison Justice and Security

Getting caught for rule violations means facing the governor as part of the prison “justice” system. In the “adjudication,” the governor will add a punishment on top of the existing sentence. This is based on the nature of the crime committed.

Inmates have the choice of legal representation for such adjudications and should take full advantage of it. Or risk an unfair IEP (Incentive Earned Privilege).

They put a black mark on your record and after three of them you lose certain privileges and get put on ‘basic regime’… they’ll confiscate your tobacco, they’ll take your television, limit your wages, no association, no courses, no work and no opportunity to make phone calls.

 Freedom is Tough

Almost every prisoner feels strangely conflicted when they are released. Especially for lifers, the whole world could have changed and not make sense any more. The rules, routines, and society of prison is all that makes sense. Like prison, the key is to take it one day at a time.

Cattermole recalls enjoying the taste of milk and food.  The phone ringing. Rapid internet. The small things.

But readjustment is very tough.

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.

People only want to know the gory and violent side of prison. After all pop culture only shows that side of things.

Cattermole advises sticking to the parole schedule even if it makes no sense.

Pretend you’re very sorry. Pretend that the system works. Pretend that you regret it…

…Tell them you have a job, your housing is stable, you don’t take drugs and you’ve got a good relationship with your girlfriend and family and they’ll go from weekly appointments to monthly ones and stay off your case.

The smart thinking prisoner will distribute his belongings on the way out to his friends and cellmates. No lingering bad feelings, no bad vibes.

Ultimately, Cattermole’s handbook serves more as a way to reduce the pain of a jail sentence and to count down the days to when you enjoy and value freedom even more.

Cattermole wants everyone facing jail time in the UK to read his handbook before going in. He even has a Twitter handle and is looking for more material to update the handbook all the time.

Been a guest of The Queen? Got a tip to share? Carl’s your man.

About the author

The Bodahub writing team brings you the best counter culture narratives from around the world.

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