Understanding C.R.A.P.

Review: Carl Cattermole (2019) Prison: A Survival Guide London: Penguin

Having read Prison: A Survival Guide I gave it a quick Twitter review. Here is a fuller review of this excellent and important book.

The problem with almost everything that is written about prison is its inability to resist the temptation to make life inside make ‘sense’. This is particularly true of academic writing but is, in different ways, also true of media representations, official statements and the pronouncements of reformers. Prison always has a purpose – be it to deter, incapacitate, reform or to punish – and although it may have problems, these are always temporary and resolvable: by longer/shorter sentences; harsher/more humane regimes; better/worse food; more/less access to phones; etc. etc.

Both to make sense of the prison place, and to give credibility to whatever reforms are being proposed, the messy reality of everyday prison life is largely ignored. The biggest strength of Prison: A Survival Guide written by Carl Cattermole, with contributions from seven other people, is that it refuses to make sense of prison. Instead by sharing the expertise of prisoners and their families, it tells it as it is experienced. For anyone facing incarceration and their family and friends it is an invaluable resource. For the rest of us it is an opportunity to start understanding prison as it is experienced – ‘like a monsoon designed to wash away your humanity’ (p. 7) – rather than the mythical prison presented by the state, the media, reformers, and academics.

The book will be a particularly valuable read for families and friends. Lisa Selby’s section on her experience of her partner’s incarceration is sobering reading. The thousands of partners who continue to support their incarcerated loved one find their lives ‘dominated by the prison system’ and are offered ‘virtually no support in practical or financial terms’ (p. 86). Visiting is a logistic nightmare with prisoners often held long distances from families in difficult to access locations and, having made the trip visitors, are confronted by hostile attitudes and lists of rules. Having been searched, possibly shouted at and restricted in your ability to physical express your love you must somehow reconnect with your partner. Lisa notes, ironically that the guards – through their non-consensual strip searches – get to be more intimate with prisoners than their partners. Prisoners are themselves acutely aware of the mistreatment of, and attitudes to, their families with Carl recounting that when he was in Wormwood Scrubs there was a whiteboard in the visits room proudly declaring the ‘NUMBER OF VISITORS ARRESTED …’ (p. 69).

‘We are never noticed’ (p. 104) writes Darcey Hartley one of the nearly quarter of a million children in the UK whose have a parent locked up.  ‘I have been on visits before and the way officers have spoken to my dad has really upset me’, Darcey reports, ‘they speak to him like he is nothing.’ But as she powerfully reminds us, prisoners are something, someone important to their families, Darcey’s dad ‘is a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle and most importantly, he is my dad’ (p. 106). Her Dad is serving an IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) – effectively a life sentence. The judge set her Dad’s tariff at two years and eleven months but some 14 years later he remains locked up. Although IPPs were abolished in 2012 those sentenced to them before then have no release date but must navigate a Kafkaesque world of courses, assessments and parole hearings often leading to irrational and emotionally devastating outcomes. It is clear from Darcey’s contribution that prison has caused her considerable damage and harm. Whatever her father did to get imprisoned I cannot imagine it caused even a fraction of the harm that the state’s violence has caused to Darcey. The flip side of this experience, being a parent in prison, is told by Julia Howard for whom being an imprisoned mother was ‘by far the hardest and most soul-destroying part of the whole experience’ (p. 120).

Other children experience imprisonment differently. Jon Gulliver was incarcerated aged 14, initially in a Secure Training Centre (STC) and subsequently in Youth Offender Institutions (YOI). Prison is no place for a child, as Jon points out ‘growing up in prison is like planting a seed in concrete’ (p. 119). This is recognised by those who work in child prisons, for as Jon observed ‘when you come to prison, you are always called ‘youths’ or ‘young offenders’, but never ‘children’’ (p. 113). The emotional harm inflicted by prison is clear, ‘in prison’ Jon writes ‘you are not allowed to care for people, and people are not allowed to care for you’. Jon tells us he ‘came into prison a confused young child’ and that 12 years later he has ‘come out of prison a confused young man’ (p. 117).

Clearly how prison is experienced will be very different and Prison: A Survival Guide provides a platform for a variety of people to share their perspectives. As well as Jon’s account of being a child in prison, Sarah Jane Baker writes about the experience of incarcerated LGBTAQ+ prisoners, Julia Howard writes about women’s imprisonment, and Elliot Murawski writes about a drug user’s experience of prison. Sarah Jane’s sharing of her experience as a Trans woman will be invaluable to anyone wanting to understand the experience of transgender prisoners.  Anyone who claims that Trans women prisoners are not genuine, but really just men seeking a soft option, is dispatched by Sarah Jane with the observation ‘if constant bullying, comments, sexual harassment and isolation are your idea of a ‘soft option’ then I’d suggest you haven’t really thought things through’ (p. 127). Elliot’s arrived in prison, on remand, ‘ten years into a massive addiction to heroin’ (p. 141). He gives a good account of a drug users likely experience of prison. Likewise, Julia provides some valuable insights into life in a women’s prison.

What is clear from Julia’s account is the decency of most of the other prisoners she met. ‘They were just normal people, just like me and you’ she unsurprisingly discovered (p. 13). For Carl sharing the experience of incarceration generated ‘a solidarity that is rare for our generation’ and that prison is a place where ‘you can and will make some really close mates’ (p. 51). Violence does happen, but it is far rarer than most people would imagine. In fact, what much of this book speaks to is prisoners’ capacity to cope with systematic dehumanising treatment. Prison seems determined to make people worse, but to a large extent this is successfully resisted. For example, given the treatment of Muslim prisoners ‘you’d expect a lot more people to get radicalised than actually happens’ (p. 58).

I have stressed the individual contributions of the authors and their expertise based on lived experience. But the book is much more than that. It is packed with useful information. From how to make alcohol, rope, salad dressing and jail Velcro to constructing an anti-cockroach bed moat.  There is a great guide on prison lexicon – the most important I suspect is C.R.A.P (Confusing Rules Applied Patchily) – and an excellent list of useful contacts. But its most important message – for both potential prisoners, their loved ones and the rest of us – is that to understand prison you need to understand that it does not make ‘sense’. Ultimately it is a place where ordinary people are trying to cope with a ‘place (that) will push you as low as you can go’ (p. 71) and where talk of reformation and education is mainly just empty rhetoric.

Unlike so many prisoner memoirs, primarily written by middle class establishment figures who have served a single sentence, the authors of Prison: A Survival Guide do not advocate a reform agenda. Their contribution is far more important, they recognise implicitly that there is no ‘reformed’ fantasy prison, and recognises that the challenge for prisoners is to survive in a prison system which ‘is inhumane, illogical, really expensive and creates more crime than it stops’ (p. 176). Carl Cattermole ends by calling for the ‘questioning … of this whole concept of prisons’ (p. 177). In reality the only way that we will survive prison is through its abolition, and that will require not only questioning prisons as institutions but the unjust social order they are central to sustaining. Buy this book, read this book, share this book.

Update 14.12 on Monday 19.08.2019

One serious omission from the review above that needs correcting is an appreciate of the book’s illustrations by Jeremy Banks (Banx) – they are brilliant!


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