Shine A Light

How to survive in prison

Amid a crisis of suicides and assaults across prisons in England and Wales, one former inmate offers advice on staying safe. (See also: Danger, overcrowding, no time to talk: a UK prison officer speaks out).

Carl Cattermole
4 April 2015
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A few years back I’d just been released from prison, where I'd been sent, like 70 per cent of male prisoners, for committing a non-violent crime. I’d done a hell of a long time locked up 23 hours a day in a single cell, stewing in my every thought. For countless hours I’d built up the moment of freedom. Instead, I found myself dumped outside the prison gates on an industrial estate somewhere in the Midlands.

Armed with a prison issue bin bag containing the clothes and books I hadn’t distributed to my friends who still had months and years left to serve, I had a rail warrant to the back corner of Essex where my girlfriend lived, and £40 in my wallet. That’s the standard amount they give prisoners on release – enough to buy heroin or drink for a weekend but very little else. Luckily I didn’t have a drug problem and I had a home to go to.

Looking back, I can say that I was feeling completely unhinged and unable to cope – I did have some support but no one could really understand what it was I’d been through. They were just happy to have me back and expected me to be on the same page. 


'Carl Cattermole'I’d spent SO much time locked up inside my own head, returning to the real world was complete cold water immersion. I had to learn everything again, including how to be myself.

I felt warped and self-conscious, I felt raw but at the same time dulled, I felt aggressive and cold-hearted but at the same time vulnerable. I felt disconnected from myself —and the girl I had been in love with, but I was too involved and couldn’t identify any of this at the time.

I vented part of my confusion and anger into writing HMP – A Survival Guide, a short book that is designed to help others.

Before I went to jail a good friend who’d already served time told me a few of the basics — what to take, what to expect, how to act, how to make beans on toast without a stove and how to boil water without a kettle. I benefitted from this information so much that I felt it was criminal (excuse the pun) to not pass this information on to others who may not know anyone to ask, or who may be too sheepish to ask their mates.

It was available free online and it went viral – more than 200,000 reads which is a lot for a book… it’s not just a mindless click on YouTube.

Fast forward three years and I’ve got a publishing deal, cartoons from Banx (Private Eye/FT), an encomium from Will Self, and I’ve re-written a lot of the text.

It now represents my greater understanding of what I went through. First time round it was “I had no problems whatsoever”, this time I talk about the long-term emotional damage that prison can do, especially if you don’t prepare properly.

Family and strong links with your support network are what get you through jail and play by far the largest part in a genuine rehabilitation.

But the prison system systematically breaks these roots, by moving you to the other side of the country when you have a wife and children who can’t afford to visit, offering you only two visits a month even if you’re well behaved (threatening you with withdrawing your interaction with your loved ones is deeply screwed up – don’t get me started), and limiting access to the unaffordable telephones, not even letting you receive books.

This is happening to 85,000 prisoners and their proliferating numbers of innocent loved ones right at this minute. 

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@BanxCartoonsIt’s not complicated. The less damage is done to people’s ties with their loved ones, the less people’s minds are warped whilst they are in prison, the less rehabilitation work is needed and the less people are going to reoffend.

But whilst we’re still in this screwed up situation created by electioneering politicians, I want to suggest a few easy ways to survive this dehumanising experience.

In the book I start with the small things…

How to write letters from both sides of the wall.

How to deal with the visit room trauma, watched over by CCTV cameras and over-zealous screws, all the prisoners sat there wearing hi-vis tabards like some kind of cycle proficiency trainees trying to not spill the emotional beans.

How you should get involved in education and get stuck into books rather than channel-hopping, and how you should take things like bedsheets.

It seems so trivial but your own bedsheets make you feel at home, whereas the bobbled, mouthwash-green, prison-issue bedsheets that have had the seams ripped out (for rope) make you feel more at-sea and institutionalised. 

Besides the core audience of potential prisoners and their families, I’m writing for the law-abiding taxpayer, politicians (not sure if they count as taxpayers), judges and anybody else who actually cares about society.

In 30-something pages that are good natured and funny, people will learn about the reality of prison as opposed to the media stereotype of A) a Butlins for burglars and sex-offenders or B) an encampment of facially tattooed lumpen-savages.

Anyway, there’s so much more to go into… that’s why I wrote a book. It’s not-for-profit, available free online as a PDF, or if you want to keep your eyes circular you can order a hard copy for just £4 from right here


Thanks to @BanxCartoons for letting us publish his work.




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