Friday, 22 August 2014

Prison Life: Sweatboxes and Sweaty Socks

It is an undeniable fact that prisons stink. Anyone who has been on a prison wing knows that there is a peculiar smell of captive humanity: male sweat, stale cigarette smoke from cheap tobacco, bad plumbing, festering dustbins, a hint of urine, unwashed socks. Imagine a rugby club changing room on a hot summer’s day and you’ll be in the right sort of ballpark area.

You first get a sense of what is coming from the prison transport or ‘sweatbox’ that will take you from court to the jail to which you’ve been assigned in your capacity as a newly minted convict. These vans are operated on contract by private sector firms such as GeoAmey, G4S or Serco.

A sweatbox
There are cubicles on each side of a central corridor and you are locked into a tiny mini cell which consists of no more than a hard moulded plastic bench and a tinted glass window. Tall prisoners will probably find it excruciating as you can’t stretch your legs at all. I’m 6 1” and I had a hard time. The cubicles often stink. There are no toilets provided on board, so a prisoner who is being transported and gets caught short may either use an empty water bottle or, in some cases, may be told by the escort staff to just use the floor. You can imagine the rest.

Cons can end up being locked in sweatboxes for many hours both travelling to and from court and between prisons. My personal record in a sweatbox was six hours non-stop, although we did halt at another nick to pick up a couple of other transferees. The escort staff weren’t in any hurry, so we were all just left locked in our little boxes in the sun in the August heat as the temperatures soared. On occasion, inmates can also be sick during the journey and I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being in a sweatbox with vomit running down the gangway and under the cubicle doors.  

But that, dear reader, is just the antechamber of hell. The real fun starts when you get to the prison itself. The institutional smell of caged human males hits you as soon as you get onto the residential wing. 

Mopping the wings
The usual strategy on the part of the prison authorities is to have wing cleaners mop down the walkways with highly-diluted disinfectant a couple of times a day. Sometimes the main floors will also be buffed up with polish. This does little to eradicate the all-pervasive smells and just adds to the institutional atmosphere of hopelessness and inaction, but at least it makes it look like something is being done, particularly when there are official visitors around.

Prisoners, just like members of the public outside prisons, come in a range of types. Some are fastidiously clean and ensure that they and their cells are spotless; others are much less so, rejoicing in nicknames such as ‘Dog-end Dave’ (who used to collect roll-up nubs on the exercise yards to remake into the cheapest kind of ciggies for resale to other cons) or ‘Sid the Binman’ (so-called because of his habit of rummaging through the wing rubbish bins in search of anything that might be recycled and/or sold).

For cons who prefer the cleaner things in life – and I like to think that I’m one of this number – it would have been unthinkable not to have had a daily shower, unless the prison was on lockdown. Our pads (cells) were mopped out regularly and the in-cell WC and sink were washed down daily. Occasionally, I even cleaned the windows panes between the bars. 

Sealed windows in cells
Some jails have installed closed-unit windows in cells. These cannot be opened (mainly to prevent cons from running contraband items on ‘lines’ – pieces of string or strips of torn up bedsheets – between cells during bang up), but instead have small barred grills at one side that can be opened or closed with a knob. Little fresh air is admitted and in summer cells can become unbearably hot. If we left our pets in such dangerous, inhumane conditions the RSPCA would be round.

One of the greatest fears for most cons is to have a real stinker of a pad-mate imposed on you: someone who neither washed themselves, nor their clothes. This only really happened to me once, for a single night, but I’ve heard tales of woe and misery from mates who haven’t been so lucky. 

The worst fate was to have to share a cell with another con who was incontinent or who wet the bed pretty much every night. Believe me, this is not so unusual as you might think in an adult prison. Some inmates suffer from serious health conditions, others are heavily medicated (on prescription or otherwise) and so just sleep through anything, even the need to relieve themselves. Others have terrible nightmares, often related to childhood abuse, and these sometimes lead to nocturnal accidents. 

I remember one saint of a bloke who shared with a young prisoner who had learning difficulties. He had grown up in an abusive local authority children’s home and he regularly wet his bed. Most cons would have requested a swift cell move. A few would probably have beaten the lad senseless every time it happened. This man helped the kid strip his bed every morning and would even assist him in approaching the ‘cleaning officer’ – the daily duty screw responsible for the state of the wing – to get the stores opened so he could get clean sheets and blankets. 

Prison bedding from the stores
Just imagine doing that almost every morning and braving the contempt of the staff. Would you do this for a complete stranger? Anyone who imagines that all prisoners are evil and lack compassion should think again. In different circumstances, a few of them would probably be canonised.

Occasionally, wing officers could be less compassionate. I’ve come across cases of prisoners being forcibly stripped and hosed down with cold water from fire hoses in shower blocks because their personal hygiene left much to be desired. In most instances, the cons on the receiving end of this ‘treatment’ – which was intended as much as a punishment as a cleansing operation – had serious mental health problems or learning difficulties.

The shortage of prison issue clothing hasn’t helped in matters of cleanliness. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problems of forcing male cons back into prison uniforms when the shelves in the stores are almost empty. Having men wearing the same set of issued jogging bottoms, boxer shorts and t-shirts for days or even weeks at a time doesn’t make the average prison wing smell any better.

Most closed prisons have a specific day for putting out washing so it can be taken to the laundry. Some have special arrangements for washing prisoners’ own clothing (assuming they are being allowed to have any in possession), either in smaller laundries on the wings or down in the main one.

The price of clean washing
Of course, if you want your clothing washed property using decent washing powder purchased yourself from the canteen sheet, then there is a price to pay. Working in a prison laundry is a brilliant opportunity for a bit of profitable private business on the side. The usual tariff was a can of tuna (£1.10) or a couple of bars of cheap chocolate (50p each). 

Almost everyone moaned about this, and almost everyone paid up. The sheer indulgence of getting your clothes back smelling fresh and neatly folded – rather than smelling of everyone else’s dirty socks and screwed up into damp balls straight from the tumble driers – was a guilty pleasure for which most of us were willing to pay.

Newly released prisoners often talk or write about “scrubbing the stink of prison” off as soon as they get out. I’ve spoken to quite a few ex-cons who have shared this sentiment. You just want to get into a proper hot bath as soon as you get home and soak yourself. If they can afford to do so, quite a few prisoners ditch any clothing they have had with them inside because it is difficult to ever completely remove the smell of the nick. You may be able to wash off the smell of prison, but you can never ever quite forget it. 


  1. Another interesting post and an aspect of prison I'd never thought about before.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I know the details in this post may a bit strong and vivid for some people, but sometimes you just need to say it like it really is, particularly if any readers are facing the prospect of going inside. Better to be prepared for the less pleasant aspects!

    2. Its always good to have an honest account of the realities prison life instead of the usual media fodder the public are fed and swallow without question, i have had my eyes opened having a son in hmp

    3. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you're finding this blog interesting and I hope your son is doing OK.

      I think that until someone has first-hand experience of prison (either as a prisoner or because a family member or a close friend has been inside) it's very difficult to understand the reality of imprisonment. Being totally dependent on others for everything in prison means that you have to create survival mechanisms.

      I think that as long as the Daily Mail myths about prison being a dossiers' paradise aren't challenged there will be popular misconceptions about prisons and prisoners. I'm doing my little bit to get the truth out, one blog post at a time!

    4. It's so true, the media portrayal of prisons is far from the truth of what actually goes on.

      The Daily Mail et al tell us it's playing pool all day, watching Sky TV, living the life of Riley in a "holiday camp". Not my experience!

      What isn't mentioned often is the cramped conditions - nearly double capacity, sharing with sometimes very scary strangers, eating & sleeping in your own (and somebody else's) bathroom, no hot showers for weeks on end, intolerable food, poor healthcare - 8 months wait for an emergency dental appointment, unjust "justice", general neglect, the list goes on and on.

      I can't thank Alex enough for raising the issues that he is, it's truly sad that the media like to make prison sound comfortable. For one who's been there, or anybody with a relative in one knows for a fact how much media and governmental spin there is.

      Prison shouldn't be comfortable or easy. It should be only a last resort for the worst of the worst. But it should be humane and productive. Rehabilitating those inside to have a much brighter future once they leave compared to when they arrived. At £40,000 per inmate per annum, on average, there must be a better way than the system we currently have to reduce reoffending. Not singularly for the inmate, it would also help any future victims to not actually become victims at all.

    5. Thanks for your contribution and your encouragement. It's only when people like ourselves, who have first-hand experience, are willing to speak up and challenge the popular misconceptions and smears of the tabloid press that we'll start being able to have an intelligent and informed debate about incarceration and why prisons fail to reform or rehabilitate.

      We've no doubt both encountered people inside prison who are very dangerous. However, since prison is doing nothing to help them change their attitudes and aspirations, the chances are they will remain just as dangerous as they were from the beginning, but perhaps even more bitter and filled with hatred. All that is happening at the moment is very expensive human warehousing.

      Vast amounts of public money are being wasted on a system that is characterised by institutional failure. If prisoners are released in worse shape than they were when they went in - physically, mentally, socially - then we are doing the public and society at large no favours. There will be more victims in the future and the present prison system doesn't prevent this, it merely delays it for a few months or years at a very high cost to the taxpayer.

  2. I read "Inside Time" every so often, the letters mention filthy cells and poor food quality amonst other things. I tried to imagine a typical prison smell, I immediately thought of man smells within a beer tent at a rock or metal festival like Download - phewee!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that to outsiders prison is a bit like a TV documentary - you can visualise the situation, but it's the smell that you just can't capture!

      To be honest, filthy cells are usually the fault of the inhabitants, although some ancient pads just can't be cleaned up properly and recent cutbacks have seen key items such as bleach tablets being withdrawn in most jails. These at least could be used to clean in-cell WCs.

      Strangely enough, most nicks won't let prisoners have disinfectant to clean their pads with. Wing cleaners get it issued in a diluted form for the main floors, but I've known cons get into trouble for having cadged a pop bottle full from their mates so they can freshen up their pads.

      It is true that in some prisons there are solid air-fresheners available on the canteen sheet for £1 (although not many cons want to spend their cash on them). Some nicks used to allow smokeless incense sticks, but that's pretty rare now because they can be used to mask the smell of Mamba and other 'herbal highs'!

  3. It must be hell for a non smoker to share a cell with a smoker. A local paper mentioned a con taking his complaint down to the Court of Appeal in London cos sharing with a smoker was an abuse of his human rights. The appeal was thrown out of Court of course - silly man.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, forcing a non-smoker into sharing a cell with a smoker does still happen, especially when prison wings are really over-crowded - as they are at the moment. An estimated 80 percent of adult male prisoners smoke, so the non-smokers are definitely in the minority.

      I only had to share with a smoker twice. The first time for a single, very unpleasant night, and the second time by choice as a good friend of mine was trying to quit and I agreed we should pad up together so I could help him. He eventually fell off the wagon and we agreed that he'd smoke only on the exercise yard and out of our window! Still, he was a great bloke to share with, so it was worth the nasty whiff of tobacco on his clothes.

      That said, more and more prisons are enforcing tighter regulations on smoking to head off potential legal action - by non-smoking cons and screws alike. At my last jail (an open prison) they had just banned all smoking anywhere except in the prisoner's own room (no cells in a D-cat!) with the door closed and the window open. Even staff are now banned from smoking anywhere inside the perimeter and have to slope off to the carpark during their tea and lunch breaks.

      I've written a previous blog post on smoking called: Burn: up in Smoke? That has more info on the current situation and future plans by the Ministry of Justice to ban all smoking in prisons.

    2. Yes, I just read it. I'm reading your blog back to front (new posts to old ones)

  4. Been there and the stink will live on with you for the rest of your life.....

  5. I found that there was a hint of overcooked cabbage in the aromatic cocktail, whether it was on the menu or not. I remember one occasion when somebody replaced the insert from his mates air freshener with a hard boiled egg. The poor lad was going frantic searching for the source of the ever increasing stench for four days until he found it.