by Carl Cattermole
Prison – A Survival Guide does what it says on the tin: it’s a practical guide to surviving the British prison system.
I wrote this zine from pure impulse, out of pure necessity, smashed it out in the fortnight following my release. Sitting in Essex on license from jail with a Serco shackle (electronic tag) on my right ankle, remembering how to use the wretched laptop.
In that little period before I returned to London I was a total mess. It was like pretending to be OK after you’ve been punched in the face: I had tears in my eyes but I was telling my mates “nah, I’m alright!”.
Literally crying at the dinner table, unable to love, walking through woods and cycling down country lanes on my own, just wishing there was a big metal door to stop me.
The 2D jail story presented by the media is fucked up (I mean, some print on paper, it’s 2D and it’s sad). But try it in 3D: suicides, self harm, violence and drugs. Then remember it’s 4D and extends far, far beyond the experience itself: the ensuing freedom can be the scariest thing you’ve ever faced.
Institutionalisation isn’t just skin deep, it penetrates your bones.
So yeah, I wrote that zine about how to survive prison but at that point in my life I needed Freedom – A Survival Guide. But, listen, in a round about way, the original is also designed to be that. You see, the more prepared you are for prison, the less it will institutionalise you; the less institutionalised you are, the less re-adaptation you need.
A stitch in time saves nine. A letter to your girl about how you really feel saves nine disfiguring arguments in the visit room.
I hope the survival guide is like a Bourne Identity thing, can see the future disaster and steps in. There are so many stitches to be saved, so many miles of emotional thread. Little tidbits of info, like: “¥ou can take a hi-fi” – do you know what a hi-fi can do for a prisoner? Music saves sanity. “Knowing a few tactics to stay in touch with support networks” – that’s crucial because losing those links is what distorts you the most. “Letting people know about the bereavement services” – do I need to explain why that’s good? Open University courses. Knowing basic codes of conduct when you first enter – for example not accepting free things – prevents people from getting into hierarchies of victimisation.
If you were gullible enough to believe the shallow-fried myth of ‘British Values’ (ie democracy and media transparency) then prison’s quite a glitch, isn’t it? Prisoners are voteless and voiceless.
If the argument for prison was presented afresh today it’d go like this: Hey guys, I’ve got an idea, let’s separate people who did something deemed wrong by society away from their families, into a box of violence, cockroaches and heroin. Yes! That’s right! Everyone. Stolen some bacon? JAIL. Failed to ensure our kids attend school? JAIL. Squatted a totally empty house when you’re homeless? JAIL. Painting graffiti? JAIL. Years and years of JAIL.
Even acts like murder and rape: JAIL. Err, what? You murdered someone so I prescribe you heroin, violence and cockroaches. It’s some weird logic when you think about it. These people need to be in psychiatric care talking about what lead them to that moment of madness.
In the Ministry of Justice curated info-void I felt like writing a book to prepare people was stabbing it straight in the heart. This book was my personal vengeance against that system. Many other people’s vengeance is their reoffending, and it’s not productive (if you get caught) – but I one million percent understand them.
I can actually be really judgemental but, who am I to judge anyone, and who’s a judge to judge people like us? Seriously… who the hell are these people and what do they know about our lives?
The judge I need wouldn’t want to violent-heroin-cockroachise me: they’d want to un-break my heart; un-destroy my head; not smash each 1000th of me into another 1000 pieces. But here comes little judge man with his life ruining little hammer and he will never ever allow me to question his belligerence – in fact, he’ll just give me further years behind bars for contempt of court.
2018: onwards and upwards. Well, it can only get better from that shit turn of phrase can’t it? I just got a major publishing deal so right now I’m 20% of the way into something that might fly, and equally might flop, but I believe in it absolutely so will be fighting til I’m a spicy puddle of blood and cartilage.
A deal with the publishing devil but that devil is mates with other devils and they’re who I need to have a word with. Big hopes. But I’ll most likely get passed around like the fresh piece of creative meat I am and if I’m lucky I’ll end up doing a talk at Basingstoke Waterstones.
Some people I know have been lying on their back looking at the career stars in the sky; I have on the other hand given zero fucks in the knowledge that I can steal from Sainsbury’s and ride my bike… I was going to say “if the worse comes to worst”, but this is actually the extent of my career aspiration. It seems very unfair that this big career spaceship has just hovered above me, beamed me up, and here I am with all these publishing world aliens in horn-rimmed glasses, smiling in my face and sending me polite emails.
Anyway, it’s hardly a career; the money isn’t actually good. I’d earn more doing my usual construction with my mate James. The reason I’m doing it is because I think it’s crucial that this prison stuff isn’t presented by ex-criminals who are, like, “Hey, I did my crime, I did my time, please forgive me… and now I’m going to gingerly tell you how the system should ever-so-slightly change”. I think it’s better to be like “I should not have been sent to prison. I’m here to tell you that it wholesale does not work. So forget sentencing someone for some irrelevant non-crime: go prosecute real crimes like those committed by justice secretaries. They should be in jail for the hundreds and thousands of lives they’ve destroyed”.
Can you taste the difference between the chalk and the cheese? I’m just asking because a lot of people can’t work out what’s real and what’s not. I’ll tell you what’s very real: Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey. It’s one hell of a book. If you don’t already know what we’re dealing with then you will after those 200 pages. Ignore that the Guardian now loves it: it loathes the Guardian and demolishes the ground it’s built on.
Also. Sorry. Can I just recommend another book? The Sentence by Alistair Fruish. In 2031 the London Review of Books will write a big article saying they’ve uncovered the best-ever piece of underground working class literature; however, in 2018 they’ll most likely ignore it. It’s currently unpublished so send Fruish an email. Very ten out of ten.
These ex-prisoner creatives who come on all “My creative process stopped me from reoffending” – good on you, but I think I’ll die if I stop breaking laws. The idea of ‘going straight’ is just weird to me. When the going gets tough, those who actually meant it will eat flakes for dinner like a goldfish. I’m proud to say I committed crime throughout prison, scratched my name in the segregation cell while waiting for adjudication with the prison governor. When I walked from the prison gates I bunked the train to London, stole my lunch from Pret and wrote graffiti on a phone box. Puny, little petty-crimes that prove a major point: the judge’s stupid little hammer hasn’t recast me as a droid.
Carl Cattermole is an offender and author of HMP: A Survival Guide to Prison
Artwork by Jeremy Banx