Here at Hoaxtead Research we have a very active in-box. We receive multiple tips, messages of support, and questions each day. Our readers’ support and participation are important to us, and we value each email we receive. Lately, the topic of custodial sentencing seems to be much on people’s minds, and we’ve had several queries along the lines of “What is prison really like?”
We have no personal experience of the matter, but we’ve done a bit of research and asking around; here’s what we found. Obviously, this is nowhere near a comprehensive description of life behind bars, but we hope it answers some of your burning questions.
Try to avoid being sentenced on a Friday
Once a person is declared guilty in court, they are taken straight to the cells below, and eventually sent to their first prison. If they’re sent to prison on a weekend, they’ll find nothing out until Monday, and any disorganisation or delays in the prison will be magnified, at a time when they’re just trying to fit in.
Nothing will go according to plan
One of the first things we heard from professionals who work within the prison system is that no matter what an inmate might be told (say, about how long it will be before they can make a phone call, or when they will be moved from one place to another), the time-frames given will be completely unreliable. According to one source, the best plan is to try to have no expectations about when things will occur, no matter what the ‘official policy’ is in any given institution.
Of course, this is harder for some people to adjust to than for others.
According to the website First Time in Prison:
The main reason for all this uncertainty and things not going as planned is that these institutions are large, complex, funded at the margins, and dealing with a variety of difficult to manage people. They will therefore struggle to run themselves well, which can manifest itself as everything running slightly inefficiently, or one or two things running completely hopelessly while the rest is ok. This will be intensely frustrating, especially as you will feel that whatever they are hopeless at is having a material effect on your life.
Buying things in prison
Prisoners can buy certain goods via a system called ‘canteen’. This includes things like phone credit, stamps, writing paper, chocolate bars, biscuits, cereal, some tinned stuff, some fruit, toiletries. Each prisoner receives an order sheet on the same day each week, and prisoners may spend a maximum of £15 per week on these goods. Delivery is by DHL, and the system isn’t perfect; some weeks, orders may be incomplete or may fail to arrive altogether.
Trading can be tricky
The people at First Time in Prison have this to say about trading purchased goods:
Do your best not to start trading (especially when you’re still figuring it all out) and don’t feel you have to give someone something (cereal, whatever) just because they ask – there are hundreds of scabs who just try it on and they are used to being told no (all the time), just do it nicely…
Safer in a cell
Many first-time prisoners say the only times when they felt truly safe during the early days of their sentences was when they were locked in their own cells. Even those who’ve been inside for a long time say that time spent ‘behind your door’ tends to pass most quickly in prison, as this is the only time one can really relax.
What’s the food really like?
Contrary to popular belief, gruel, bread, and water do not comprise the standard prison diet these days. However, the website British Prison Cuisine Today notes that “in the UK, a prison catering manager has about £1.87 ($4) to provide food for each inmate every day”. That’s the bad news. The better news is that “special diets are catered for now…Muslim, kosher, Caribbean, diabetic and other medical diets are also provided”. Vegetarian and vegan diets are also accommodated.
Alex Cavendish’s blog, Prison UK: An Insider’s View, states:
According to the prison rules, all prisoners are supposed to receive three meals a day, of which at least one must include the option of hot food. Most nicks have abandoned any pretence of serving breakfast as a specific timetabled meal. Instead, cons get issued with what is very grandly called a ‘breakfast pack’.These are pretty much standardised across the prison estate and consist of a clear plastic bag containing four loose tea bags, four small sugar sachets, four packets of whitener and a tiny bag of cereal, muesli or porridge oats. Most closed nicks also provide a 0.25 l carton of semi-skimmed milk, although if you’re unlucky the porridge oats will have had a sachet of whitener put in it already and then you don’t get any milk….
The midday meal in most prisons now consists of a pre-ordered sandwich or ‘baguette’ (no relation to the tasty French bread of the same name), sometimes with soup as an additional offering, but often not….Tea (served around 5.30 pm in many nicks) is usually the main meal of the day, although at weekends some nicks serve the sandwich in the afternoon, with the lunchtime offering being cooked. In theory, this is supposed to be hot food, although salad options are often available. These meals range from pretty good, to truly inedible. Often the catch is inconsistency. One week, the shepherd’s pie will be very good, the following week it will taste as if one of the shepherds has contributed his oldest pair of sweaty socks to the ingredients. You could liken it to playing culinary Russian roulette.